A look into the NRC faces behind the James Webb Space Telescope
- Victoria, British Columbia
The James Webb Space Telescope (commonly referred to as Webb) is an international collaboration between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). The NRC has worked with the Canadian Space Agency to support the science and technology behind this exciting science mission, which is designed to change our understanding of the Universe.
Due to launch from French Guiana on December 22, 2021, Webb's unique capability will revolutionize astronomical investigation and discovery. The telescope can be used to study objects from within our own solar system all the way out to the early distant universe, which will impact most areas in astronomy.
How the NRC has helped support Canadian participation in Webb
Canadian participation in Webb is led by the CSA. The project scientist, 1 of the 2 lead roles on the Canadian Webb science team, is based at the National Research Council of Canada (NRC). Over the years, Dr. Chris Willott, and his predecessor, Dr. John Hutchings, have provided scientific oversight to the design, fabrication and testing of 2 major instruments Canada is providing to Webb. Under their purview, the NRC's Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Centre was involved in the concept and design of the fine guidance sensor (FGS), a crucial component which helps point and stabilize the telescope on the target objects with the necessary high precision.
Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Centre engineers and scientists also worked with the CSA and their contractors on the science instrument that became the near-infrared imager and slitless spectrograph (NIRISS): a scientific instrument with unique capability that will be applied to the study of many astronomical objects, including exoplanets and distant galaxies. By providing these instruments, Canada receives access to a 5% share of Webb's competed observation time, as well as some guaranteed telescope time for the instrument teams.
In addition, the Canadian Astronomy Data Centre (CADC) has stored all of the data from Hubble since its launch in 1990 and makes its data available globally to researchers. The CADC will be doing the same for Webb and will be supporting Canadian researchers as they process and analyze Webb data.
NRC at work on the Canadian Webb team: project scientists
Today, major observatories are decades in the making—even multi-generational. The NRC first began contributing to Webb in the 1990s, when Dr. John Hutchings, then Principal Research Officer at HAA, along with former Director General Dr. Simon Lilly, worked to have Canada included in the project.
Dr. John Hutchings, Principal Research Officer Emeritus, NRC Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Centre and former FGS Principal Investigator, James Webb Space Telescope
Dr. John Hutchings became a member of several early NASA working groups to define the Webb project, and participated in the Flight Science Working Group as Canadian Project Scientist until delivery of the hardware in 2012. Dr. Hutchings, along with other Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Centre scientists and engineers, and colleagues at the University of Montréal, interfaced heavily with CSA and their contractors through the entire instrument design and fabrication period. At the same time, he arranged for other Canadians to join the teams of the 2 spectrograph instruments designed for Webb. With CSA funding, he hired and supervised 4 Canadians working in Baltimore on Webb support and operations. In 2012, Dr. Hutchings became a researcher emeritus at the NRC, and while he remains on the Canadian science team, he turned his duties related to Webb over to Dr. Chris Willott.
Dr. Chris Willott, Senior Research Officer, Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Centre and current Project Scientist, James Webb Space Telescope
Enter Dr. Chris Willott, who has also had several roles contributing to Webb since joining the project in 2006. Later on in 2012, he was 1 of the 2 Canadian members of the Webb science working group and on the NIRISS core science team, where he led the development of operational procedures and calibration for NIRISS' wide-field slitless spectroscopy mode. In 2017, he became the principal investigator of several of Webb's guaranteed-time projects and became the Canadian Webb project scientist in 2018. One year later, Chris also became Webb's archive scientist at the CADC.
NRC research to come using Webb
NRC astronomers will be involved in both guaranteed time observations, and also the first round of "general observer" research, including the following projects led by principal investigators at the NRC.
While these projects will be led by NRC researchers, they will be brought to life by supporting team members at academic and research institutions around the world, and NRC colleagues including Drs. Laura Ferrarese, Joel Roediger and Tyrone Woods.
"The Canadian NIRISS science team was allocated 450 hours of guaranteed observing time in the first year—200 hours of that will be used by our team to study some of the first galaxies ever formed. The Canadian NIRISS Unbiased Cluster Survey (CANUCS) will study the spectra from low-mass galaxies at different periods of the Universe's history in order to understand how galaxies evolved from early times up to today."
How do planets form?
"The Canadian NIRISS instrument on Webb will provide astronomers with the most precise tool yet for imaging exoplanets during their formative stage, while they are assembling out of the protoplanetary disk of debris surrounding their young stellar host. This investigation will build a key link between our recent exquisite observations of young stellar nurseries, such as those obtained with ALMA by University of Victoria PhD student Logan Francis, and the many planned Webb observations of mature exoplanets, their atmospheres, and their weather. To achieve success with this specific project, we will require the development of sophisticated image-reconstruction techniques, including machine-learning algorithms, which have potential technological spin-offs in, for example, medical imaging and remote sensing. Dori Blakely, master's student at the University of Victoria, has already begun this important computational endeavour and will be analysing these Webb observations as part of his thesis research."
Why did Pluto never grow up?
"The Kuiper Belt is a relic of failed planet formation, and its objects hold a timestamp of the middle stages of planet growth. Despite the modern flurry of exoplanet discoveries, astronomers are still uncertain about how planets grow out of primordial dust and gas. How planets form is one of the key unanswered questions in modern astronomy. This program will use the unprecedented sensitivity of Webb to search for ultra-faint Kuiper Belt objects as small as 5 kilometres in size. The total number of these small objects compared to much larger and more familiar objects like Pluto and Eris will be used to test leading planet formation theories, and help us understand why Pluto never grew up."
How do supermassive black holes and galaxies grow?
"Astronomers have discovered supermassive black holes that are billions of times the mass of our sun, in some of the youngest galaxies in the Universe. This discovery raises the key question: 'How do these extremely massive objects grow so quickly?' Our project aims to answer this by observing the galaxies that these black holes live in. Detecting these host galaxies is an extremely challenging task that has not been possible with existing telescopes. The phenomenal capabilities of Webb will allow us to see these galaxies for the first time, giving astronomers valuable insights into how black holes and galaxies grow over time. Canadians can be excited to know that Canadian astrophysicists will be some of the first in the world to see these galaxies, helping to answer these mysteries about the most extreme objects in the Universe."
How do black holes influence star clusters in the Virgo galaxy cluster?
"Black holes are the densest accumulations of matter known in the Universe, with gravity so extreme that once within a black hole's sphere of gravitational influence nothing can escape—not even light. Black holes are known to come in 2 flavours, based on how massive they are—stellar-mass and super-massive. Despite rich knowledge of them at low- and high-masses, little is known about the existence of black holes in between. Our Webb program is designed to perform a census of any such black holes residing in the cores of dense stellar systems orbiting in the nearby Virgo galaxy cluster, by studying the motions of stars falling within their black holes' influence. These unprecedented new observations will reveal the dynamical fingerprints of any sufficiently massive black holes, providing critical new insights on the mysterious origin of super-massive black holes through cosmic time."