MONTREAL — As the world tuned in on Christmas morning to see NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope lift off, Canadian scientists who played a crucial part in its creation were emotional.
The collaboration between European and Canadian space agencies soared from French Guiana on South America’s northeastern coast on Saturday, riding a European Ariane rocket into the Christmas morning skies.
Nathalie Ouellette, outreach scientist for the Webb at the Université de Montréal, was with her family watching the long-awaited launch.
“To see the telescope leave Earth … what a joy for Christmas,” said Ouellette in an interview Saturday.
“I cried. We took a video to commemorate the moment. The launch went perfectly.”
The telescope will search for unprecedented details on the first galaxies created after the Big Bang, and on the development of potentially life-friendly planets beyond our solar system.
For Lisa Campbell, president of the Canadian Space Agency, the launch was the culmination of a 30-year-old dream.
“What an exceptional day,” Campbell said.
“It’s the most powerful and complex space observatory ever built.”
Canada has been working on the James Webb Space Telescope almost from the start and will be among the first countries to study its discoveries, she said.
“It is a new step in astronomy, in understanding the universe, and our place in it,” Campbell said.
“And these scientific discoveries will be possible thanks to Canada’s expertise in astronomy.”
At least half of the 600 scientists in the Canadian Astronomical Society have been involved with the telescope and dozens of engineers are part of its design team.
Ouellette noted that the Webb’s work is only beginning.
Most people are familiar with Hubble Space Telescope — which was launched in 1990 — but the Webb is set to be 100 times more powerful, she said.
“We often talk about Webb as Hubble’s successor,” she explained.
“Webb is much bigger, it will capture more distant objects with low luminosity, look further into the history of the universe.”
The $10 billion telescope started to hurtle toward its destination 1.6 million kilometres away, or more than four times beyond the moon, on Saturday. It will take a month to get there and another five months before its infrared eyes are ready to start scanning the cosmos.
Key to that work will be the Fine Guidance Sensor, which helps aim the telescope, and the Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph, which helps analyze the light it observes.
Both have been designed and built in Canada.
“We are the eyes of the telescope, it’s Canadian eyes that allow all observations,” Ouellette said. “Canada has never been involved at this level in this kind of project.”
Innovation Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne issued a statement to congratulate Canadian’s expertise, saying past investments in space technologies made it possible for the country to be “an active partner in this exciting mission.”
“Once again, Canada’s space sector is pushing the frontier of science and, more so, of astronomy,” Champagne said. “Webb is the largest space science project in the 60-year history of Canada’s space program.”
For Daryl Haggard, a professor of physics at Montreal’s McGill University and James Webb Space Telescope co-investigator, the telescope is an undeniable source of pride.
“We were looking at the launch video, and my husband was pointing out that he could see the logo for NASA, but also the Canadian Space Agency, right there on the rocket,” she said, her voice breaking with emotion.
“It’s pretty awesome.”
Haggard said she hopes the project will put Canada on the map for its astronomical expertise.
People usually refer to Canadarm from the Canadian Space Agency, but this country does much more than that, she said. Canadarm is a robotic arm that supported American space shuttle missions for about 30 years from 1981.
In exchange for Canada’s contribution on the telescope, the country is guaranteed at least five per cent of the telescope’s observation time, once data starts to come in about six months.
Campbell said this will allow Canadian scientists to further their studies on exoplanets and black holes among other things.
“We will be able to see phenomena at the origin of the creation of our universe, its history,” she said.
“We often wonder why we explore space, but it will tell us so much.”