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Chris Willott – Astronomer

Chris Willott

Credit: Chris Willott

  • Quote: There is a unique excitement in seeing something new in the universe that no human has ever seen before.
  • Studies:
    • B.Sc. First Class, physics with astrophysics, University of Birmingham, UK
    • Ph.D., astrophysics, University of Oxford, UK
  • Job title: Astronomer in the Canadian Astronomy Data Centre group at National Research Council of Canada's Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Centre
  • Employer: National Research Council of Canada

What is your connection to the James Webb Space Telescope?
I am the Canadian Webb project scientist. I am also the Webb archive scientist at the Canadian Astronomy Data Centre.

My work on Webb is focussed on making sure that astronomers receive the highest quality data. This involves planning the exact sequence of operations that are 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 can be processed.

What part of the Webb mission are you most excited about?
Webb will be such a powerful machine for astronomy that I expect the first few months of science operations will provide a flood of new revelations about the universe. I am most excited to see what galaxies in the very early universe are like. We have discovered a few such galaxies with Hubble, but don't have enough data to know what the physical conditions are like in those galaxies.

Are those galaxies tiny by today's standards? Are they bursting with new stars being born at a tremendous rate? Are they made up of primordial gas or enriched with the chemical elements we see around us on Earth? With Webb we expect to be able to answer all those questions and be surprised by things we haven't even thought of yet.

What is the best part of your job?
The universe is so big there is always something new to explore. I have enjoyed working as part of some great teams on different aspects of Webb development. Everyone involved in this special mission is extremely dedicated.

How did you choose your career path?
I was interested in space as a kid. At school I enjoyed math and physics, so it seemed natural to see if I could study astrophysics at university. With so much unknown about the universe, I decided research was the most interesting career I could choose.

What advice would you give young people interested in going into space science?
It takes a lot of hard work, but there is a unique excitement in seeing something new in the universe that no human has ever seen before.

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