Twenty-five years in the making, the James Webb space telescope (Webb) is set to launch on Christmas Day. And while there have been a few delays along the way, Western astrophysicist Els Peeters says the timing is perfect as the launch makes for an excellent Christmas present.
“It’s super exciting that we’re counting down in days, not in months or years. If there was a delay now, it will likely only be a day or two. It’s a very nice Christmas present.
And it’s one that unwraps itself,” said Peeters, an astronomy professor and a faculty member at Western’s Institute for Earth and Space Exploration (Western Space).
With a price tag of $11 billion, Webb is the most powerful space telescope in human history. Developed in partnership by NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), Webb boasts an iconic 6.5-metre-wide mirror, consisting of a honeycomb-like pattern of 18 hexagonal, gold-coated mirror segments and a five-layer, diamond-shaped sunshield the size of a tennis court. Both the sunshield and the mirror must be unfolded in space before Webb can be used for observation by space scientists like Peeters.
PDRs4All, the project she co-leads, is an international collaboration that also includes Western astrophysicist Jan Cami. PDRs4All was one of 13 projects selected by the Space Telescope Science Institute to be the very first programs to use Webb. During the first months of operation (likely summer and fall 2022), 500 hours of observation time has been allocated to these 13 projects – meaning Peeters, Cami and their team will get about 40 hours with Webb early in its mission.
Peeters says PDRs4All will observe a portion of cloud illuminated by young massive stars found in the Orion Nebula, already one of the most studied celestial objects in the night sky. The discoveries that the team will make will inform the international space community about the influence massive stars have on their environments, and even on the formation of the Solar System.
“Stars start forming within clouds and when stars are born, they emit copious amounts of radiation. This radiation influences the cloud, which changes the temperature, the composition of the gas, the composition of dust, everything,” said Peeters. “We are trying to decipher which physical and chemical processes are actually happening because right now, we do not know the precise processes.”
Webb effectively usurps Hubble as the largest and most versatile space telescope. For nearly 30 years, Hubble has undeniably changed our understanding of the Solar System, the Milky Way and the entire universe. But Cami says Webb is better.
“In business, if a company improves a product by 10 or 20 per cent, that’s a giant increase in efficiency. Compared to Hubble, James Webb is 100 times more sensitive. It’s a complete game-changer,” said Cami, director of Western’s Hume Cronyn Memorial Observatory and Western Space associate director (research & outreach).
“For some of the big questions, like studying early galaxies, there was just no way you could ever see those with Hubble. Now we can. The James Webb space telescope has enormous sensitivity, which allows you to look at things that are crucial for understanding the physical properties of the universe. And because we can detect atmospheres, we can possibly detect signs of life. It wasn’t designed for that, but it can certainly be used for that.”
While Peeters always knew Webb would become a reality, she can’t believe launch day is finally here.
“We’ve done so many space missions before, but never one as complex as this one. It’s mind-boggling to think how many people are involved in Webb,” said Peeters.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Peeters and Cami aren’t traveling to French Guiana for the launch. They’ll be watching from home on the edge of their seats. Twenty-five years in the making, Christmas is coming.
To view the launch, visit https://www.nasa.gov/nasalive