Challenges facing the new James Webb space telescope



The James Webb space telescope is one of the major projects of the early 21st century. The world's greatest scientists are working together on this quest to build one of the most complex machines ever designed by man. The illustrious team includes a Québec scientist, René Doyon, physics professor at Université de Montréal and director of the Mont-Mégantic Observatory. The new telescope's mission will be to explore the very beginnings of the universe, some 13 billion years ago, and to study the atmospheres of planets in other solar systems.

For the ordinary citizen, the technologies used in the telescope will almost certainly be integrated into numerous electronic devices in the future.

Four science instruments that work in infrared light are at the heart of the telescope: two cameras, a multi-object spectrograph and a fine guidance sensor. The latter is provided by the Canadian Space Agency, and René Doyon's scientific team has been working on designing it since 2001. This instrument acts as the eyes of the telescope and contains all of the optical equipment necessary to keep it pointing precisely at its target. The other task of the instrument developed under the leadership of the Québec researcher will be to study the atmospheres of other planets and determine their molecular composition, in the hope of finding water, or even signs of life. René Doyon was chosen to head this crucial component of the project due to his extensive background in astronomy. The fact that a Québec researcher played such a key role in the development of the telescope will provide Québec and Canadian astronomers with access to precious observing time as well as front-row seats to future great scientific discoveries.

This type of project has a major economic impact. For the ordinary citizen, the technologies used in the telescope will almost certainly be integrated into numerous electronic devices in the future. For example, the electronic sensors used in cameras for cell phones, portable computers and tablets were developed for the Hubble telescope. Wi-Fi technology was also invented by radio astronomers.

NASA intends to replace the Hubble telescope with the James Webb telescope in 2018. Much larger than its predecessor, the Webb is able to look further back in time to study the birth of the planets and explore the first galaxies. It will therefore be used primarily for fundamental research, contributing to a better understanding of the universe and possibly shedding some light on those big questions whose answers continue to elude us: Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? Is there other life in the universe?