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Vancouver astronomer gains access to James Webb Space Telescope

It took years and a series of failures before Dr. Jeremy Heyl gained access to space exploration’s holy grail.

Countdown to a new star - Hidden in the neck of this “hourglass” of light are the very beginnings of a new star — a protostar. The clouds of dust and gas within this region are only visible in infrared light, the wavelengths that Webb specializes in. Source - NASA's James Webb Space Telescope. CC SA 2.0.
Countdown to a new star - Hidden in the neck of this “hourglass” of light are the very beginnings of a new star — a protostar. The clouds of dust and gas within this region are only visible in infrared light, the wavelengths that Webb specializes in. Source - NASA's James Webb Space Telescope. CC SA 2.0.

It took years and a series of failures before Dr. Jeremy Heyl gained access to space exploration’s holy grail.

Dr. Heyle is an astronomer and a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, in Vancouver, British Columbia, according to CTVNews Canada. The “holy grail” being referred to is none other than th34 James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

He holds numerous awards, including a Canada Research Chair in Black Holes and Neutron Stars. In the past he was a Goldwater Scholar, a Marshall Scholar and a Chandra Fellow.

“We had applied for a bunch of different programs, maybe five or six different ones, and this was the only one that was successful,” said Heyl, a professor of physics and astronomy at UBC.

James Webb Space Telescope Launch. Arianespace’s Ariane 5 rocket is seen in this false color infrared exposure as it launches with NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope onboard, Saturday, Dec. 25, 2021, from the ELA-3 Launch Zone of Europe’s Spaceport at the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, French Guiana. — Photo: NASA

Canada’s contribution to the JWST

The James Webb Space Telescope, )JWST) NASA’s premier space observatory of the next decade, was successfully launched on Christmas morning, December 25, 2021.

The nearly $10 billion space observatory – larger and more sophisticated than the Hubble telescope, has been in the works since the 1980s and is considered the crowning culmination of an international team of scientists from 14 countries, including Canada.

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) contributed two important elements, built by Honeywell, to the Webb Telescope. In exchange, Canada receives a guaranteed share of Webb’s observation time, making Canadian scientists some of the first to study data collected by the most advanced space telescope ever built.

The two critical elements contributed by the CSA to the Webb Space Telescope included:

  • the Fine Guidance Sensor (FGS), which allows the telescope to point at and focus on objects of interest
  • the Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS), a scientific instrument that helps study many astronomical objects, from exoplanets to distant galaxies

In return, Canadian astronomers were to have access to three types of observation programs:

  • Early Release Science
  • Guaranteed Time Observations
  • General Observations
Artist conception of the James Webb Space Telescope. Source – NASA GSFC/CIL/Adriana Manrique Gutierrez

A waiting list of observation platforms

Actually, Canadian scientists were among the first to use the James Webb Space Telescope to make new discoveries about the universe. Dr. Els Peeters from Western University led a program chosen as one of the 13 programs to use the JWST in the first five months of its debut.

This program and others go through a competitive process before being chosen based on their scientific merit and benefit for the global astronomical community, and there is a huge waiting list.

“We received over seven times more requests than we have time for,” said Nathalie Ouellette, outreach scientist with JWST Canada. “So, it’s seven to one odds on if someone will get time on it or not.”

For the first few years, the Canadian Webb Science Team will be able to use up to 450 hours of guaranteed observing time with the Canadian NIRISS instrument and Webb’s other instruments.

Shortly after the launch, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said, “This is a great day for planet Earth. Thanks to the team. You all have just been incredible. Over three decades, you produced this telescope that is now going to take us back to the very beginnings of the universe. We are going to discover incredible things that we never imagined.”

This handout photo provided by NASA on October 19, 2022 shows the ‘Pillars of Creation’ that are set off in a kaleidoscope of color in the James Webb Space Telescope’s near-infrared-light view. — © AFP

And based on the discoveries and images beamed back to Earth by the JWST, we are constantly in awe of what makes up our universe.

Dr. Heyl’s project involves observing stars and galaxies approximately 12,000 light-years away and searching for ancient planetary systems.

“So these stars (that are) like our sun are stars that were born right at the beginning of the universe – close to the beginning of the universe – so it would be really great to know if there were planets forming 10 billion years ago,” said Heyl. “Could there have been life in our galaxy like us but five billion years ago? Or more?”

With the James Webb Space Telescope keeping an eye on the cosmos, Dr. Heyl may soon get his answer.

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We are deeply saddened to announce the passing of our dear friend Karen Graham, who served as Editor-at-Large at Digital Journal. She was 78 years old. Karen's view of what is happening in our world was colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in humankind's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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