Spectacular images beamed back to earth this month marked the end of a 30-year project to design and build the James Webb telescope. Canada played a key part, and the skills and expertise acquired are propelling its space sector forward
The Canadian Space Agency has raised its status among global astronomy researchers with its contribution of two key components of the James Webb Space Telescope, which earlier this month started to send stunning images and data more than 1.6 million kilometres back to earth.
While Canada’s space sector has developed parts of guidance systems for NASA in other projects, it is growing stronger in its own right. The Webb telescope is the most recent evidence of that.
With homegrown expertise, Canada created the fine guidance sensor for pointing the telescope and a spectrograph that can determine the composition of exoplanets' atmospheres, observe distant galaxies, and examine objects that are very close together.
Specifically, the fine guidance sensor is enabling Webb to determine its position, locate and track moving targets, and once locked onto a target, to remain steadily pointed at it, with very high precision.
These functions mean the fine guidance sensor will play an important role in all scientific observations made by Webb, ensuring the collection of clear and detailed images of celestial bodies across the universe.
Meanwhile, the spectrograph’s infrared sensitive camera is now gathering information about the spectra of distant planets, to determine exactly how bright an object is at many different wavelengths. This gives detailed information on the characteristics of the observed object, including if planets could be habitable, based on whether or not their spectra indicate they could have molecules including water, carbon dioxide, methane and oxygen in their atmospheres.
One of the first images captured by Webb is of WASP-96B, one of more than 5,000 confirmed exoplanets in the Milky Way, located roughly 1,150 light years away. On June 21 the Canadian designed spectrograph measured light from WASP-96, locking onto its target for 6.4 hours. The transmission spectrum revealed the unambiguous signature of water and evidence of clouds.
The expertise needed to design these two critical components earned Canada a seat at the table with its much larger partners NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), on this significant international science collaboration. Canadian scientists aren’t the only ones to benefit.
“It’s also an opportunity for Canadian companies to build state-of-the-art technologies,” said Robert Smith, space historian at the University of Alberta.
International partnerships, including trans-Atlantic, are at the centre of Canada’s strategy to position itself as an important player in large scientific research projects. The Canadian Space Agency is the newest and smallest of the three major agencies that participated in developing the Webb telescope, having been set up in 1989, some 31 years after NASA and 14 years after ESA.
It's not surprising then that Canada’s space sector trails that of the US, with revenues of C$5.5 billion (€4.2 billion) in 2019, primarily from satellite communications, and a workforce of 10,500, up 10% from the previous year, according to the space agency’s most recent data. By comparison, NASA had $64.3 billion in revenues in 2019 and ESA €5.7 billion.
Now, the prominence and prestige attached to its contribution to the Webb telescope is expected to boost both Canadian space research and its space industry.
“What is important is to participate in a mission by bringing in something that is world-class,” said Erick Dupuis, director of Space Exploration Development at the Canadian Space Agency.
The partnership required close collaboration to assure details such as the mass an instrument could have and its thermal requirement, Smith said. A component running too hot could damage other parts of the telescope, which operates at minus 266 degrees Celsius.
“You need good management on all sides, good communication, and lots of meetings about what is happening on the project,” said Chris Willott, senior research officer at the Canadian Astronomy Data Centre. “It went as good as we could have expected.”
Willott’s work involved planning the exact sequence of operations performed by the telescope to generate an observation, defining the commissioning and calibration observations, deciding on computer algorithms to process the data, and providing access to cloud-based computing infrastructure where Webb data is processed.
The Canadian Space Agency was also part of the international partnership between NASA, ESA and the Space Telescope Science Institute, that was responsible for deciding what Webb should look at first. Brainstorming began more than five years before Webb was launched in December 2021. The goal was to showcase Webb’s unprecedented capabilities and deliver a ‘wow factor’ for both astronomers and the public, and to kick off science operations.
Canada invested about C$200 million (€153.6 million) in the $10 billion Webb telescope project, in return for which its scientists will get around 5% of dedicated research time each year in the projected 10-year life span of the telescope.
For Rene Doyon, director of the Institute for Research on Exoplanets at the University of Montreal and a principal investigator for the sensor and near-infrared imaging systems, the data the telescope is sending back from beyond our solar system is very exciting.
He wasn’t sure what the telescope would produce, given that the Canadian instruments were dormant for four years before they were turned on, following the launch and deployment of the Webb telescope. Doyon also remembered clearly the initial problems with blurry images from the Hubble telescope after its launch in 1990, when it transpired the primary mirror had an aberration that affected the clarity of its images.
The image of WASP-96b, with the spectrum data of the exoplanet showing water in its atmosphere, astounded him.
“I nearly broke my jaw when I saw this beautiful data,” said Doyon. “There’s no comparison to what was done before.”
But getting to this point was not without hitches. In June 2011 Doyon realised he needed to replace older tunable filter imaging technology with near-infrared for the spectrograph. The big change had to be completed by July 2012 to meet NASA’s deadline and not disrupt the schedules of partners.
“We were working on the programme for a decade and switched gears,” he said. “But we did it in time.”
For Doyon, the collaboration on the project, which involved industry and university partners inside Canada and the two major space agencies outside, was a “good realisation of teamwork. The key word for the project is teamwork.”
And Willott has some advice for researchers working on a large, multinational project that span decades. “Try to make it not the only thing that you do,” he said.