iREx astronomers some of the first to use JWST in Year 1

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)

Thousands of astronomers submitted telescope time proposals in November 2020 in the hopes of obtaining access to James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) data during its first year of operations. A committee made up of astronomy experts then selected 266 scientific proposals as part of the JWST’s General Observers (GO) Program.

In exchange for Canada’s contribution of the Fine Guidance Sensor and the scientific instrument NIRISS, Canadian astronomers can expect to receive approximately 5% of the Webb Telescope’s observing time. Ten proposals led by Canadian proposals were selected for the Cycle 1 GO Program, in addition to many more proposals have Canadians signed on as contributors.

iREx astronomers (left to right) Lisa Dang, Olivia Lim, Stefan Pelletier, James Sikora and Loïc Albert all had their proposals selected for the JWST Cycle 1 GO program. (Credit: NASA/STScI/É. Artigau)

We are thrilled to announce that half of the selected Canadian-led proposals are being headed by iREx astronomers. Our Institute has long had strong ties with the Webb mission, including our Director René Doyon being the Canadian PI for the project, and this fantastic result is a testament to those close ties. Find out what these 5 proposals, 3 of which are being led by graduate students, are planning with their time on the JWST!


Studying Alien Worlds with Webb

The iREx Webb proposals are all on the subject of exoplanets and brown dwarfs. Lisa Dang (McGill University) and Olivia Lim (Université de Montréal), both Ph.D. students, each led a proposal to study different types of rocky exoplanets. Lisa’s target is the exoplanet K2-141 b, a lava world whose surface temperature reaches thousands of degrees. She and her team will be using the MIRI instrument and collecting 25 hours of data. Olivia is leading a study on the atmospheres of many planets in the intriguing TRAPPIST-1 system. The program covers exoplanets TRAPPIST-1 b, c and g, the last of which is located in the system’s habitable zone. The team will be using the Canadian instrument NIRISS in addition to the instrument NIRSpec for a total of 54 hours. These data will be immediately available to the community for analysis!

Stefan Pelletier (Université de Montréal), a Ph.D. student, and Dr. James Sikora (Bishop’s University), a postdoctoral researcher, each submitted proposals targeting a type of exoplanet called hot Jupiter. These gas giant exoplanets may be as large as Jupiter, yet are located surprisingly close to their stars and are thus very hot. Stefan will be investigating how the ultra-puffy hot Jupiter WASP-127 b could have formed. His co-PIs are his Ph.D. advisor Prof. Björn Benneke and the 2020 iREx Trottier Postdoctoral Fellow Romain Allart. The team will be using the NIRSpec instrument for 13 hours. James will attempt to determine if and how clouds are being formed in the atmosphere of the hot Jupiter HD80606 b. He and his team will also be using the NIRSpec instrument for 25 hours.

Loïc Albert (Université de Montréal), a Senior iREx Researcher and one of Webb’s Instrument Scientists, will attempt to take images of 20 Y dwarfs, some of the smallest and coldest brown dwarfs known, in the hopes of discovering planetary companions orbiting around them. He and his team will be using the NIRCam instrument for 39 hours.
The Webb Telescope is still on track to be launched in the Fall of 2021 and will then undergo about 6 months of commissioning to deploy, reach its final destination and make sure all its components are working. It will then begin taking scientific observations, including for the Cycle 1 GO programs. We can’t wait to see what amazing discoveries will be uncovered during Webb’s first year!

An international collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency, the James Webb Space Telescope is the most complex and powerful space telescope ever built. Canada contributed two key elements to Webb: the Fine Guidance Sensor (FGS) and the Near-Infrared Imager and SlitlessLes Spectrograph (NIRISS). In exchange for that contribution, Canadian researchers will have access to 5% of the observing time available to the international community.


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