An international group of Astronomers in Montreal for the conference “Exploring the Universe with JWST-II”

An artist's rendering of the James Webb Space Telescope. (Credit: NASA GSFC/CIL/A. M. Gutierrez)
An artist's rendering of the James Webb Space Telescope. (Credit: NASA GSFC/CIL/A. M. Gutierrez)

The second edition of the conference “Exploring the Universe with JWST” took place during the week of October 24-28. One hundred researchers from everywhere around the globe gathered at Université de Montréal to discuss the scientific programs of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). This infrared telescope, which is often referred to as the successor of the Hubble Space Telescope, will create a revolution in astronomy.


A group photo of the participants of the “Exploring the Universe with JWST-II” Conference.

A review of the current status of the telescope was first presented by Jonathan Gardner, from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. René Doyon, director of iREx and principal investigator of one of the instruments on the telescope, confirms: “The launch will take place as planned in October 2018, in Kourou, Guyana.”

The researchers who attended the meeting discussed the various scientific questions that will be studied with the four instruments of JWST in different fields such as cosmology, the study of galaxies, of the Solar System, of stellar formation and populations and of exoplanets.

The conference, organized by iREx in collaboration with the Observatoire du Mont-Mégantic (OMM) and with the support of the Centre for Research in Astrophysics of Quebec, gathered many iREx members. David Lafrenière, professor at iREx and UdeM, presented NIRISS (“Near-Infrared Imager ans Slitless Spectrograph”), the Canadian instrument, for the team lead by René Doyon. The scientific community has a lot of hope for this instrument. NIRISS will be able to split the light of a star that passed through the atmosphere of a transiting exoplanet in order to study its composition.

“It is the first opportunity we will have to detect gases in the atmosphere of a terrestrial exoplanet. It is possible that we will be able to identify molecules that, on Earth, were created massively by life, like oxygen and methane. The debate will then be opened, as if these molecules were also created by life on these planets”, explains Loïc Albert, a researcher at iREx and OMM who is working on NIRISS.

The teams that are building the instruments receive several hundreds of hours to observe with the telescope. The conference was thus an excellent occasion for them to share their ideas with the broader scientific community in order to determine the best targets that will be observed during this time.

A public lecture by David Charbonneau, Professor at Harvard University, also took place on Wednesday evening. Professor Charbonneau was the first to detect an exoplanet with the transit method, in 1999. Organized jointly by the Canadian Space Agency and AstroMcGill, this conference attracted 500 persons who heard about the question “How to find an inhabited planet?”.

Garth Illingworth, professor at University of California, Santa Cruz, closed the scientific meeting. He represented the committee in charge of optimizing the scientific output of the telescope. René Doyon summarizes:

“This tool is a considerable investment. Scientific meetings like this one help the scientific community to get ready to exploit a maximum of the capacity of this instrument during its total lifespan, between 5 and 10 years.”

The first edition of the conference took place in the Netherlands in October 2015. JWST is a joint mission between the American, European and Canadian Space Agencies (NASA, ESA and CSA).