The James Webb Space Telescope stands complete and ready to be loaded onto a rocket for launch. (Photo Courtesy of NASA)

The James Webb Space Telescope stands complete and ready to be loaded onto a rocket for launch. (Photo Courtesy of NASA)

Island scientists play key role in helping space telescope explore earliest galaxies

Team at Herzberg research centre helped design the James Webb Space Telescope

Astronomers around the world received a spectacular Christmas present this year as the James Webb Space Telescope successfully blasted off and started its mission which will eventually provide humanity’s best look yet at the deepest reaches of space.

But for a team of scientists in Greater Victoria, the launch meant much more. It meant decades of work had paid off, and they will soon get one of the first chances to use the new cutting-edge technology.

The telescope is a joint project between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, but much of the science work for two key pieces of the $10 billion spacecraft was done by Dr. Chris Willot and his colleagues at the Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Centre in Saanich.

”It’s been very exciting, but it was really nervy watching the beginning part of the launch,” said Willot. “At every stage, things seemed to be going well, so it was a relief for sure. The really great thing about this launch was the cameras on the rocket, which they don’t usually do … we got to actually see the telescope leaving [the rocket] and then a couple minutes later, the solar panel opened and we got to see it all deployed. That was really exciting to me.”

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Willot currently serves as the project scientist for Canada’s contribution to Webb, co-leading the team with principal investigator Dr. Rene Doyon with the Universite de Montreal.

The team provided expertise to the CSA, helping to guide the scientific goals of the telescope and designs of its fine guidance sensor, which allows the telescope to navigate, locate and lock-on to targets to observe, and the near-infrared imager and slitless spectrograph, one of four devices used to observe and study distant objects.

While Willot joined the Webb team in 2006, the Herzberg centre has been involved since the very early stages of the project 25 years ago.

In addition to helping to guide the design and objectives for Webb, Willot said he and his team will also maintain Canada’s archive of all data collected by the telescope, helping to ensure it is accessible to scientists around the world, just as they have been doing for the Hubble Space Telescope since its launch in 1990.

But it’s the potential for future research once the telescope becomes operational in the summer that excites Willot the most, and scientists at the Herzberg centre will be among the first to use the telescope.

“My own research area is in the very early universe, looking for the first galaxies,” he said. “I’m leading one of the two large Canadian projects … we know that galaxies early in the universe are quite different from the galaxies we see today, so we are trying to trace the whole evolution of galaxies.”

Willot said Webb will be able to observe these distant objects in finer detail than previous space telescopes such as Hubble thanks to its larger size and its orbit further away from Earth’s surface.

“With a mission like this, we will undoubtedly discover a lot of new things in the first few years which will challenge our understanding of the universe.”

READ MORE: B.C. scientists capture most-detailed radio image of the Milky Way’s sister galaxy


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Dr. Chris Willott of the Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Centre in Saanich served as co-lead for Canada’s contribution to the James Webb Space Telescope. (Photo Courtesy of Chris Willott)

Dr. Chris Willott of the Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Centre in Saanich served as co-lead for Canada’s contribution to the James Webb Space Telescope. (Photo Courtesy of Chris Willott)