Halifax researcher to study ‘baby galaxies’ using new space telescope


A space telescope launched next week will carry with it the hopes and dreams of Halifax researcher Marcin Sawicki, who helped develop an instrument on board.

The telescope will be able to take pictures of the first stars to appear in the universe after the Big Bang.

The launch of the James Webb space telescope is scheduled for December 24 at the earliest from the French Guiana spaceport in South America.

Marcin Sawicki is Professor in the Department of Astronomy and Physics at Saint Mary’s University. (Submitted by Marcin Sawicki)

The telescope, the size of a school bus while nestled in the nose of the rocket, will deploy to the size of a tennis court once it reaches its final destination at around 1.5 million kilometers from Earth – five or six times the distance from the Moon.

The telescope is so sensitive that it will be able to capture images of what the first stars in the universe looked like around 13.5 billion years ago. This is the time it took for the light to reach us.

“When the universe came out of the Big Bang, there were no stars, no galaxies, no light,” said Sawicki, professor in the Department of Astronomy and Physics at Saint Mary’s University and director of the Institute for Computational Astrophysics. “It was a very, very, very dark place.

“We expect the first few stars to start lighting up in the very first galaxies. And so Webb is designed to find, detect those all, very first sources of light – the cosmic dawn, as we like to say. “

Over the past 20 years, Sawicki has participated in the development of an instrument called NIRISS – Near Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph – which will be on board the telescope.

The device will detect very distant galaxies and exoplanets, or planets that orbit stars outside our solar system.

NIRISS splits the light of everything in its field of view into a spectrum, like a rainbow, Sawicki said. By looking at the intensity of the different colors, scientists will be able to tell how far away an object is.

The main mirror of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is deployed at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. (NASA / Desiree Stover)

The spectrograph is one of two Canadian-built instruments on board the telescope, along with a fine guidance sensor, which will allow the telescope to stay locked to a specific target.

Due to Sawicki’s involvement, he and his team will have exclusive access to some of the telescope’s data for a year.

100 times stronger than Hubble

The Webb telescope is around 100 times more powerful than its predecessor, the Hubble, which can capture light from around 12 billion years ago. The difference between what these early galaxies – what Sawicki calls “baby galaxies” – look like from Hubble and what they will look like from Webb is immense, he said.

“It’s kind of the difference between seeing newborns and seeing toddlers, you know, kindergarten kids. It’s a huge difference.”

This colorful mosaic of the central part of the Orion Nebula is based on 81 images from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) Very Large Telescope at Paranal Observatory in Chile. Researchers will train Webb in this region to study the phenomena associated with the birth of stars and planets. (ESO / M.McCaughrean)

Sawicki said he thinks it’s important to learn more about the early galaxies, as they contain the story of Earth and every human being on it.

“These stars, like our sun, contain many chemical elements that were made in previous generations of stars. So every chemical element in your body, except hydrogen, was made in a star.” , did he declare.

“This is our history, this is our past, this is our origins. This is the exciting thing about looking into the past to see where we came from.”

This Hubble Telescope image shows the core of the globular star cluster Messier 92 (M92), which has approximately 330,000 stars and is one of the oldest and brightest in the Milky Way. Webb will observe M92, or a similar globular cluster, at the start of his mission to demonstrate his ability to distinguish light from his individual stars in a densely populated environment. (NASA / ESA / Gilles Chapdelaine)

In addition to showing what the first galaxies looked like, the telescope will help scientists understand how galaxies develop over time, Sawicki said.

“What kind of physical changes are going on in them? How fast are they building their body, their mass, assembling new stars, producing these chemical elements? “

Once the Webb Telescope arrives at its destination, it will undergo a series of tests before it starts sending data in about six months.


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