40 light years away | Exoplanet Trappist 1, in a nearby galaxy

At the moment, in a very distant solar system, seven planets revolve around a “red dwarf”.


Bob Weber
Canadian Press

Three of these exoplanets are close enough to their star that liquid water is present there. And one of them, “Trapist-1 f”, also has the appropriate density. Can ocean waves lick the shores of this distant world, 40 light-years from Earth?

“There is a good chance that this planet will be rich in water,” excited René Duyon, a physicist and exoplanet specialist at the University of Montreal. “The only way to find out is to use Webb.”

NASA image, via Associated Archives

NASA technicians lift the mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope using a crane at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

That “web” is NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, the product of more than twenty years of work, and 13 billion in investments, which should finally be launched this week. Mr. Doyon, the principal investigator for the Canadian components of the telescope, who has been involved in the project almost from the start, is impatient.

I get up in the morning these days and say, “Wow, this is coming.”

Physicist René Doyon, principal investigator for the Canadian components of the Webb Telescope

The Webb, equipped with two primary systems manufactured in Canada, is the successor to the famous “Hubble” space telescope. But Webb will orbit even deeper in space – about 1.6 million km from Earth, beyond the Moon, which is between 350,000 and 400,000 km. The new telescope will also be 100 to a million times more sensitive than Hubble, Doyon said.

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Webb is designed to unravel two big mysteries of the universe: the nature of planets outside our solar system, and what the oldest galaxies can teach us about the birth of the universe. Webb will be able to analyze the atmospheres of exoplanets and collect data on galaxies where the “first lights” appeared 13.6 billion years ago.

The primary tools for this work: a precision-guided sensor, which allows the telescope to be surgically orientated toward the outer reaches of the universe, and a “near-infrared imager and non-slit spectrograph”, which helps analyze the light observed by the telescope. Both devices are designed and manufactured in Canada.

5% of the observation time for Canada

“Every note and every beautiful photo will guide Canada,” said Mr. Doyon with a touch of pride.

Canadians will get 5% of the observation time

Sarah Gallagher, a science advisor at the Canadian Space Agency, said Canada has been a part of Project Webb almost from the start. At least half of the 600 scientists from the Canadian Astronomical Society and dozens of researchers and engineers were part of its design team.

Canada has spent nearly $200 million over the years, enough to allow Canadian researchers to have 5% of the telescope observation time. In addition to exoplanets and “early light” galaxies, Canadian researchers will use Webb to study, for example, asteroids and comets near Earth, or how stars affect surrounding space in far regions of the galaxy. Where new suns are born.

said mr.I Gallagher. “It gives us a place at the table of international cooperation. Our community of astronomers is known around the world, not least because we are partners in these truly new and exciting missions.”

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Launched by an Ariane 5 . missile

But first and foremost, Webb needs to be put into orbit. After the telescope’s launch, scheduled for Friday from Kourou, French Guiana – the European Space Agency is also a partner – the telescope must be deployed into space by carrying an Ariane 5 rocket, like a giant remote-controlled origami.

NASA estimates that things could go catastrophically wrong on at least 300 occasions during this delicate process.

This deployment will take two weeks, after which it will take another two weeks for the telescope to reach its orbit in space. Another five months will pass as the telescope gradually “cools out”. Because Webb “sees” infrared rays, which he feels on Earth in the form of heat. However, the telescope itself must reach a temperature of about -223 degrees Celsius before its own heat interferes with the radiation it is picking up.

According to Doyon, by June the Earth should receive images that could stun the world, as happened in 1990, the first images captured and transmitted by Hubble.

And the new telescope can survey the surroundings of this “new world” that haunts Mr. Doyon’s imagination: the exoplanet Trappist-1 f.

“It’s a perfect (solar) system,” he explained. These exoplanets will be our main targets. Is there water, carbon monoxide2methane – what kind of molecules do we need to live? It’s a huge step forward in that big goal: finding life “beyond our solar system.”

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