As the world lifted up NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope on Christmas morning, Canadian scientists who played a key role in its construction became emotional.
Cooperation between European and Canadian space agencies escalated Saturday as a European Ariane rocket rides into the sky on Christmas morning from French Guiana off the northeastern coast of South America.
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Nathalie Ouellet, outreach scientist for the web at the Université de Montréal, was watching the long-awaited launch with her family.
“Leave the earth to see the telescope? What a joy for Christmas,” Ouellet said in an interview on Saturday.
“I cried. We took a video to make that moment memorable. The launch went perfectly.”
The telescope will discover unprecedented details on the first galaxies formed after the Big Bang and the evolution of potentially life-friendly planets beyond our solar system.
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For Lisa Campbell, chair of the Canadian Space Agency, the launch was the culmination of a 30-year-old dream.
“What an extraordinary day,” Campbell said.
“It is the most powerful and complex space observatory ever built.”
He said Canada has been working on the James Webb Space Telescope since its inception and will be among the first countries to study its discoveries.
“This is a new step in astronomy, in understanding the universe, and our place in it,” Campbell said.
“And these scientific discoveries will be possible, thanks to Canada’s expertise in astronomy.”
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At least half of the Canadian Astronomical Society’s 600 scientists are involved with the telescope and dozens of engineers are part of its design team.
Ouellet notes that the web’s work is only the beginning.
Most people are familiar with the Hubble Space Telescope, which launched in 1990, but Webb is poised to be 100 times more powerful, she said.
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“We often talk about Webb as the successor to Hubble,” she explained.
“Webb is huge, it will capture more distant objects with less luminosity, look further into the history of the universe.”
The $10 billion telescope began moving toward its destination on Saturday 1.6 million kilometers away, or more than four times as far from the Moon. It will take a month to get there, and five months before its infrared eyes will be ready to start scanning the universe.
Key to that work will be the Fine Guidance Sensor, which helps aim the telescope, and the Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph, which helps it analyze the light it sees.
Both are designed and manufactured in Canada.
“We are the eyes of the telescope, it is the Canadian eyes that allow all the observations,” Ouellet said. “Canada has never been involved in a project like this at this stage.”
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Innovation Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne issued a statement congratulating Canada’s expertise, saying that past investments in space technologies have made it possible for the country to become “an active participant in this exciting mission”.
“Once again, Canada’s space sector is pushing the limits of science, and even more so, of astronomy,” Champagne said. “Webb is the largest space science project in the 60-year history of Canada’s space program.”
For Daryl Haggard, professor of physics at McGill University in Montreal and co-investigator of the James Webb Space Telescope, the telescope is an undeniable source of pride.
“We were watching the launch video, and my husband was pointing out that he could see the logo for NASA, but also the Canadian Space Agency, on the rocket,” she said, her voice breaking with emotion.
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Haggard said he hopes the project will put Canada on the map for its astronomical expertise.
People usually refer to Canadarm from the Canadian Space Agency, but this country does much more than that, she said. Canadarm is a robotic arm that supported American spacecraft missions for nearly 30 years, beginning in 1981.
In exchange for Canada’s contribution to the telescope, the country is guaranteed at least five percent of the telescope’s observation time, when data begins to arrive, approximately six months.
Campbell said it would allow Canadian scientists to advance their studies on exoplanets and black holes, among other things.
“We will be able to see the events at the core of the creation of our universe, its history,” she said.
“We often wonder why we explore space, but it will tell us a lot.”
— The Associated Press in Edmonton, with files from Bob Weber
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