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Under the same sky

photo789.jpgWe may be a small Canadian town, but the success of the James Webb space telescope affects us all

My Grandma Dolly loved to watch the night sky. Whether it was the aurora borealis, Orion the Hunter, an eclipse or an occasional meteor shower, I have wonderful memories of being wrapped tightly together in a woolly blanket, staring up and feeling full of possibility. 

Growing up in the relative darkness of Jasper National Park allowed us to enjoy the stars without the visual noise that comes with being surrounded by thousands of street lamps and traffic lights. Recently, the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada officially designated Jasper National Park as a Dark Sky Preserve – an area that is for the most part free of artificial light. One of the goals behind dark sky preserves is to continue to foster people’s relationships with celestial bodies, and to promote the field of astronomy. Hopefully, opportunities to view the stars and planets inspire more than astronomers to wonder: What else is out there?

We know a little bit more about what lies beyond earth from the undertakings of the Canadian Space Agency and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Because of missions like Apollo 11 (one giant step) we know about moon rocks and mountains on the moon. The Hubble Space Telescope has told us a lot about black holes that we couldn’t discover from the ground and has helped us discover other planets and stars. 

Most recently, NASA and participating countries (including Canada) have been building the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). This space telescope will have the ability to show us things my Grandma Dolly could never have imagined. It will be capable of finding the first galaxies that formed in the early universe, and connecting the Big Bang to our own Milky Way. It will observe stars forming planetary systems, using technology that may allow us to predict whether or not there is life on other planets. 

“It is in some sense a time machine – taking us almost 13 billion years back in time” says Dr. Robert Thacker, Canada research chair in astronomy and astrophysics at St. Mary’s University. 

The telescope was set to launch in 2014, but the project is currently on the chopping block at the hands of the United States House of Representatives, who cite a large budget and cost overruns as reasons for discontinuing.

According to Thacker, these are worrisome times for astronomy.

“We have a community of 550 scientists doing astronomy research in Canada. In some sense the ramifications of the discoveries that won’t be made [if the project is cancelled] affects everyone, because JWST would look at so many different things; planets, stars, galaxies, you name it. It would have a huge impact. If the Hubble Space Telescope opened a window on the universe, then JWST will bust open the barn doors,” he says.

Thacker is sympathetic to the need to cut programs during tough economic times, but when it comes to the JWST, he suggests that it’s not quite that simple. 

“It’s seems like you’re saving money, but when you cut away from technology like this you cut off your nose to spite your face. From [these projects] you learn new science and develop new technologies, and many of the companies that build these new technologies then spin off these ideas into new products.” 

For example, it turns out that the technology used to detect incredibly weak distortions in space-time can be used here on earth to detect stealth planes. X-ray telescopes led to the development of x-ray baggage scanners. Remember when cameras went digital? A key component in digital imaging is a charge-coupled device developed from space technology. Enjoy sitting on your living room couch while pounding away wirelessly on your laptop? Wi-Fi is made possible by techniques from radio astronomy. Thacker points out that Australia’s Science Agency (the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization) netted $250 million last year in royalties from Wi-Fi technology because they licensed the relevant techniques out of astronomy.

Dr. Thacker also points out that the cost of the program is small relative to other program budgets. 

“When you look at the annual NASA budget compared to the [U.S.] military budget, it’s tiny. And if you look at the overall government expenditure…JWST is 1/2000th of the deficit, so it’s not that large a part.”

Besides, the United States is not the only country that has contributed dollars to the project. Thacker explains that Canada has committed $147 million to JWST, of which a sizable amount has already been spent on the development of two special instruments. Canada is developing the fine guidance sensor, which would control how the telescope is pointed. 

“It’s accurate to the width of a hair about four kilometers away,” says Thacker. 

Canada is also contributing the tunable filter imager, which would allow us to view the sky in different wavelengths. The trade-off for our research and investment would be five per cent of the observing time on the James Webb telescope, which Thacker says is “really good value for money for Canadians.”

One cold winter night, I brought my Grandma Dolly outside to watch the aurora borealis wave like green ghosts in the dark sky outside her home. I am grateful for the memory – she died two weeks later of complications due to breast cancer. She would have died much earlier had medical advancements not prolonged her life. Because a lot of image processing techniques developed in astronomy have been applied to medical imaging, astronomy may well have played a role in allowing us several more years together. We often can’t predict the spinoffs that will come from science, but it’s certain that if we continue to cut fundamental research, we may miss life-altering discoveries. 

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