The Canadian Space Agency views space as a national asset for Canada. In the past year, researchers at Western have contributed to research ranging from interpreting some of the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope, and hosting the Space as a National Asset for Canada conference, to constructing the CubeSat Ukpik-1 — launched by SpaceX in July 2023 — and detecting for the first time ever a molecule known as the methyl cation (CH3+) in matter surrounding a young star.
President Alan Shepard recently sat down with two astrophysicists – Sarah Gallagher, director of the Institute of Space and Earth Exploration (Western Space) and Jan Cami, director of the Cronyn Observatory, for an engaging discussion about understanding our place in the universe to the power of the James Webb images and AI’s impact on space exploration.
Alan Shepard: How would you describe the work of astronomers?
Sarah Gallagher: We’re trying to understand what is going on in the universe, really far away. When you look at something, you’re almost always looking at a snapshot. Just a moment in time. So if you want to understand how things change over time, you have to look farther back in time and try to understand what the story is. For me, that’s what’s really exciting: just trying to figure out how all this weird and wonderful stuff actually happened.
AS: Do you think about time differently than people like me – non-astronomers?
Jan Cami: The comment I often get from people who are not scientists is: I can’t wrap my head around it! The sizes. The distances. The time scales. But neither can we! What we can do is make scale models. This is how you can visualize or think about time. Also, it’s important to remember that the whole evolution of what happens in the universe is in our body. The carbon atoms in two of your fingers may have been formed in two different stars in the past. So, we are essentially the universe figuring itself out, and it’s a privilege to have a front-row seat in that process.
SG: As an astronomer, one of the things I think we have perspective on is just how unique the Earth is. We are in exactly the right spot for life to flourish. The nature of our sun, the rotation of our planet, the fact we have a magnetic field, all of those details have really made the Earth quite a special place. As an astronomer, I certainly have a strong appreciation for how important it is to look after our planet.
AS: Tell me about Western Space and some of the research currently underway.
SG: One recent example: we just launched our very first satellite into space! We had a team of students based in Western Engineering that built a very small satellite, called a CubeSat. It was launched on a SpaceX rocket and sent out from the International Space Station, and we’ll be able to talk to it from a ground station we’re building at Western. It’s going to take pictures of the Earth and send them back down.
JC: What I have been working on and will still be working on until I retire is the mystery of all the complex carbonaceous molecules in space. If we can identify them, we could probably find applications for durable materials on Earth as well. It’s a very interesting problem because again, you cannot go into space yourself, you just have to figure out what these molecules are, and you don’t have a lot to go by. So knowing what it is that’s out there, how these molecules get transported into young star systems, and into planets being formed, is a fascinating topic.
AS: It is kind of mind-blowing in a way, isn’t it?
SG: We don’t know what most the universe is made of. There are just these huge questions and there are new discoveries all the time because we’re getting better tools and we understand more about the universe, and we have computers that allow us to interpret new data in new and exciting ways.
AS: There’s great public interest in the images from the James Webb Space Telescope. What do you see when you look at these images?
JC: Without a doubt, the most exciting thing I’m involved in right now is the James Webb Space Telescope! As soon as the first images were released, we had to pick up our jaws off the floor because the images contain so much structure and dynamic range – there’s so much beauty in them. For us, every pixel in every image is actually a full spectrum that contains information about molecules, dust, temperatures and densities. We get to see things no one has ever seen before.
SG: James Webb is able to take exquisite images at infrared wavelengths of light and every time you look in a different part of the electromagnetic spectrum, it’s telling you something different. So, when we look at X-ray images, they are telling us about gas at a million degrees and really energetic processes that happen near black holes. When we look at the infrared images, we see things otherwise hidden by screens of dust. We can peer deep into the centres of clouds where stars are being born or black holes are growing. That is really phenomenal.
AS: How will A.I. affect your profession and our view of the universe?
JC: The first and probably most important role A.I. will play is to help us sift through all these observations and data because there is just too much for one person to look at. Sorting through sometimes billions of observations and categorizing them into ones worth investigating and ones which can wait, that is certainly something A.I. will play a big role in.
SG: A.I. is also going to be critical to deep space exploration. We’re going to be sending more spacecraft out beyond the immediate reach of the Earth and there’s a time delay between when something happens and when we receive the signal on Earth. Even on the Moon, where the time delay is a little over a second, that’s too long to have a remote operator. So, it’s really important that things are autonomous, whether they’re rovers or Canadarm3, and that’s where A.I. comes in. Robotic technologies that will be able to make decisions because we’re not going to have the ability to control them remotely. That is going to be an essential tool going forward.
The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
The Behind the Research series brings together Western researchers from diverse disciplines to discuss global trends and challenges. Watch this four part-series about Western Space and the first in our series on equity and pandemics.