Canada and the James Webb Space Telescope

Billed as the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope is the most complex and powerful telescope ever built. The Webb telescope is a joint project between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

When launched in 2018, the infrared-optimized telescope will be the premier space observatory of the next decade, serving thousands of astronomers worldwide. The Webb will study every phase in cosmic history, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of stellar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our own Solar System. The science goals for the Webb can be grouped into four themes:

  • Search for the earliest stars and galaxies
  • Map the evolution of galaxies
  • Study the formation of stars and planets in the Universe today
  • Search for the potential for life in the Universe.

To observe objects at great distances—billions of light years away—the telescope will be large enough to gather very faint light and cold enough to detect infrared light from these distant objects. The Webb will be stationed 1.5 million kilometres from Earth at the Second Lagrangian Point (L2), one of five areas distant from the Earth where the effects of gravity are nearly eliminated, allowing the telescope to orbit a semi-stable point and manoeuvre with minimal interference. This optimal location will reduce problems with stray heat and light and enable the designed sensitivity of this highly sophisticated space observatory.

Canada's Contribution

The Canadian Space Agency has invested approximately $146 million over 10 years in the design, building and science support for Canada's contribution to the Webb, which consists of the observatory's Fine Guidance Sensor (FGS), and one of the telescope's four science instruments: the Near-InfraRed Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS). Both were designed, built and tested by COM DEV International in Ottawa and Cambridge, Ontario, for the CSA, with technical contributions from the Université de Montréal and the National Research Council of Canada, and scientific guidance of the FGS science team. The Canadian Space Agency's contribution guarantees Canadian astronomers a share of observing time, as a 5% partner. The Canadian instrumentation covers 40% of what the telescope will see. The FGS, or guider, is an essential component for the success of the telescope. The guider consists of a camera that will allow the Webb space telescope to determine its position, place its celestial targets precisely for its instruments, and remain pointed so that the telescope can collect sharp images and high-sensitivity data. The FGS must spot telescope drifts the size of a dime seen 1000 km away, 16 times per second, to keep the Webb working properly. The guider also can track moving targets accurately, for observations of objects within the solar system. It is sensitive enough to work anywhere in the sky, and has two fully redundant cameras, as insurance against failure.

NIRISS will have unique capabilities for finding the earliest and most distant objects in the Universe's history, by obtaining key spectra of all faint objects in its field of view. It will also peer through the glare of nearby young stars to discover new exoplanets, by providing the telescope's highest resolution images. It will have the powerful capability of detecting the thin atmosphere of small, habitable, earth-like planets transiting their parent stars, to determine its chemical composition, seeking water vapour, carbon dioxide and other potential biomarkers such as methane and oxygen.

The FGS-NIRISS science team is jointly led by Dr John Hutchings of the National Research Council of Canada and Professor René Doyon from the Université de Montréal, Director of the Mont-Mégantic Observatory and member of the Centre de Recherche en Astrophysique du Québec (CRAQ). The team includes astronomers from: COM DEV; the National Research Council Canada; Saint Mary's University; the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI); the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich); the Université de Montréal; the University of Rochester; and the University of Toronto.