Canadians will be among the first to conduct observations from the James Webb Space Telescope, expected to launch in 2019.
NASA revealed thirteen early release science projects Monday, out of which three involve Canadians. More than 100 applications were initially submitted in August 2017. The selected projects will be conducted in the first five months of the telescope’s mission, and the data will be immediately available to astronomers worldwide.
The chosen projects will test the capabilities of the telescope’s tools, while conducting observations beneficial to the global scientific community.
“Seeing Canadians participate in the selected projects speaks to the value of Canadian expertise on the international scene,” said Canadian Space Agency (CSA) spokesperson Maya-Olivia Eyssen in an email Thursday.
The infrared telescope, a collaboration between NASA, CSA and the European Space Agency (ESA) will peer into the distant and near universe from its vantage point on the far side of the moon.
The array of projects will study planet and star formation, black holes, intergalactic medium (IGM), planetary transits, and more.
The largest research team is co-led by Els Peeters, a professor at University of Western Ontario.
Her team of 138 investigators and collaborators will investigate young stars and star forming regions. They’re specifically looking at Photo-Dissociation Regions, warm areas of gas and dust around stars, which are highly visible to the telescope’s infrared sensors.
“We’re looking at what is in there, and what is happening to it,” says Jan Cami, Peeters’ colleague at University of Western Ontario, and the other Canadian investigator on the project. “We have a fairly good idea about it, but a lot of detail we actually don’t know.”
Peeters specializes in the large carbonaceous molecules found in these areas. “I’m trying to figure out their characteristics,” she says, “but also to understand their environment, how they can participate, possibly, in the formation of life.”
“It is a large and diverse team,” says Peeters of the research team. It includes astronomers, physicists and chemists, in both theoretical and practical fields from CSA, ESA and NASA.
“We put a lot of time into the proposal,” says an audibly excited Peeters, “and I think it’s paid off.”
Peeters and Cami’s proposal can be read here.
Out of the 460 hours of project work in this initial batch of experiments, the most went to Montreal’s Björn Benneke’s project, with 78 hours dedicated to their experiments.
The project is based out of the United States, but has 23 investigators with the ESA, and one, Benneke, out of Canada.
Benneke is an assistant professor at Université de Montréal. His proposal looks at transiting exoplanets (planets outside of our solar system).
“It’s becoming such a big part of the James Webb Mission, says Benneke, “to probe the atmosphere of these planets.”
Benneke says his project is designed to test all four of the telescope’s tools, and get some cutting-edge science in there as well.
When a planet passes in front of a star, that starlight passes through the planet’s atmosphere before travelling to the telescope’s sensor. Because of this filtration, researchers can probe gases, water vapour and temperature in the atmosphere of said planet. The most likely candidate for their early observations is nearby, Jupiter sized, WASP-39b.
Benneke says with the infrared spectral capabilities of this telescope, they’re even hoping to map cloud patterns on giant planets..
He notes that what’s unique about this telescope, is its large spectral coverage. The telescope uses infrared sensors to detect cosmic information, from near infrared all the way to mid-infrared.
“We can do a lot of science that we could never do before,” he says.
Read Benneke’s proposal here.
Brenda Matthews is part of the third project involving Canadians. While it is led out of Britain, Matthews is one of four investigators out of Canada. She says this project looks at exoplanets and debris disks (fragments of comets and other material around stars) to figure out the best strategies for future observations.
This project will use all four of the telescope’s tools, and nearly 40 hours of observation time.
Matthews’ specialty is in the debris disks. She says they’ll be targeting the debris disks in the mid-infrared, which is a wavelength space where these objects haven’t really been observed, until now. She says she’s hoping to learn about the little grains of material, and find evidence of water from collided comets, in these disks.
“If you think about them together, the debris disks plus the planets make up the components of a planetary system,” says Matthews.
The news is new for these giddy researchers, but they’re looking to what needs to be done next.
“We haven’t got the congratulations phase yet,” laughs Matthews, “but there’ll be a phase two where we work with the people at [James Webb Space Telescope] to implement the observing plan for how to take these data.”
Read about Matthews’ project here.
The Canadian tools: NIRISS and FGS
There are four main tools on the Webb space telescope, each featuring unique capacities to study infrared wavelengths, and different astronomical objects. The Canadian contribution is NIRISS (Near-InfraRed Imager and Slitless Spectrograph).
Its design makes it particularly helpful for exoplanet observation, according to Benneke, who was part of the team of investigators designing the tool.
NIRISS is provided by the CSA, and designed by contractor Honeywell Aerospace, and a team of investigators under the direction of René Doyon at Université de Montréal.
The CSA is also providing the Fine Guidance Sensor (FGS), which, although not part of the four main tools, is critical to the telescope’s ability to “see”, according to the CSA. The FGS has two identical cameras that will guide the telescope’s position and locate its targets.
According to the CSA, these contributions will guarantee Canadian researchers five per cent of the guest observer time over the entire mission. The hours in the early science release do not count as part of the designated hours.
“The Canadian Space Agency is planning to call upon the Canadian science community to put forward science proposals as part of the [James Webb Science Telescope] science program in early 2018,” said spokesperson Maya-Olivia Eyssen in an email exchange.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated Björn Benneke as saying that “they’re even hoping to map continents on certain planets.” This in fact was incorrect . What he said was “they’re even hoping to map cloud patterns on giant planets.”