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.
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
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.”
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.