Waterloo astronomer waits for his turn on the James Webb Space Telescope


WATERLOO REGION — Brian McNamara is waiting for his turn to use the most advanced technology ever deployed by astronomers — the James Webb Space Telescope.

McNamara chairs the department of physics and astronomy at the University of Waterloo, and late this year or early next, he will use the space telescope to more closely study the Phoenix galaxy cluster.

The James Webb Space Telescope — JWST for short — was launched Christmas Day 2021 and the first images were publicly released July 12.

“The images just took my breath away,” said McNamara.

His proposal to scrutinize the Phoenix galaxy cluster was accepted by NASA, which selects the research projects from among the thousands it receives from astronomers around the world.

The Phoenix galaxy cluster contains the first confirmed supermassive black hole. The cluster is 5.7 billion light years from Earth. A light year is a measure of distance — the distance light travels in one year, which is 9.5 trillion kilometres.

McNamara can hardly wait for his time on the space telescope. After seeing the JWST pictures of a galaxy cluster called Stephan’s Quintet, his enthusiasm for the technology has no bounds. Stephan’s Quintet is a grouping of five galaxies in the constellation Pegasus.

“You can see dust being drawn out of the galaxies, dust and gas,” said McNamara. “This is the raw material for creating new stars, and you can see the stars that are being created during this fairly violent process.”

The JWST is one of humanity’s finer moments, he added, requiring the co-operation of thousands of technicians and scientists and millions of taxpayers.

“It is the kind of thing that brings us all together,” said McNamara. “Divisiveness just melts away and this really shows what we can accomplish.”

The JWST carries mission-critical technology made in Cambridge by Honeywell Aerospace, formerly known as Com Dev International: camera, guidance system, image stabilizer and spectrometer.

The company won a contract from NASA in 2004, and delivered hardware and software in 2012 for a spectrometer that collects and analyzes light in the infrared band. That light is so old, and has travelled so far, that the human eye can not see it.

The spectrometer allows astronomers to learn about the atmosphere of distant planets. Each element absorbs light at specific wavelengths unique to that atom. When astronomers look at the spectrum of a distant star or galaxy, they can determine its composition based on these wavelengths — allowing them to detect carbon, water, oxygen and nitrogen, or even signs of life.

“Because the taxpayers paid for it, this is our telescope, it’s humanity’s telescope,” said McNamara. “I think this is an achievement we can all be proud of.”

Mike Hudson, another UW astronomer, agrees about the importance of the JWST. “By going more into the infrared spectrum we can see these very, very distant galaxies and remember we are looking back in time,” Hudson said.

He hopes the JWST will see and photograph some of the oldest objects at the outer edges of the universe.

“So this is really most impressive — the ability to study in detail these very, very early galaxies, how quickly they are assembling, how many stars they are forming, what their structure is, what kind of things they are made of basically,” said Hudson.

It took a generation to design, fund, build and launch the JWST. Scientists around the world watched the Christmas Day launch, and shared their reactions and hopes on Twitter.

“Everybody followed the launch and we all breathed a sigh of relief when it went smoothly and successfully,” said Hudson. “You always worry because there are moving parts in space and if something goes wrong it is very difficult to fix it.”


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