Women helped make the James Webb Space Telescope a reality

Nathalie Ouellette, coordinator of the Exoplanet Research Institute at the Université de Montréal, and Olivia Lim, a doctoral student at the Université de Montréal.

Nathalie Ouellette, coordinator of the Exoplanet Research Institute at the Université de Montréal, and Olivia Lim, a doctoral student at the Université de Montréal.

Credit: Amélie Philibert

In 5 seconds

Many women played key roles in developing the most complex instrument ever made.

The James Webb Space Telescope, the most powerful and complex space observatory to date according to NASA, will be launched around December 22. Behind this technological marvel were quite a few women.

To find out more, we talked to Nathalie Ouellette, coordinator of the Institute for Research on Exoplanets at Université de Montréal.



In Canada, the project manager at the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) is a woman. Can you tell us more about her?

Yes, she’s Luminita Ilinca Ignat, an aerospace engineer with a Master of Applied Science degree in Fluid Mechanics from Polytechnique Montréal, and she has spent half her career at CSA working on the staggering James Webb Space Telescope project.

Canada’s contribution to the telescope has seen many twists of fortune and she’s been there for all of them. At first, Canada was only supposed to provide a component for an American instrument and a guidance sensor. Then the component turned into a separate instrument, which was eventually dropped. Canada had one year to design and manufacture a new instrument that could be piggybacked on our guidance sensor, and Ilinca Ignat was the project supervisor.

She’ll be in Kourou, French Guiana for the launch of the telescope.

Are there many women on the research side of the James Webb?

The James Webb has four extremely complex scientific instruments and there was a lead researcher for each. Two of them are women, Marcia Rieke and Gillian Wright, so we’ve achieved parity.

Marcia Rieke is an astronomy professor at the University of Arizona. She worked on designing the Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam), which is capable of observing infrared light. It will be able to provide images of the first galaxies formed after the Big Bang and collect information on their colour and appearance. The NIRCam will also help astronomers understand the formation of stars and their planetary systems.

Gillian Wright is the director of the UK Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh. She worked on the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), which will be able to observe mid-infrared radiation, as opposed to near-infrared. As mid-infrared is blocked by the Earth’s atmosphere, it can only be detected from space. The MIRI is equipped with a camera and a spectrograph that detects light in the mid-infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum, with wavelengths longer than what our eyes can see. Gillian Wright also had to overcome another technical challenge: a heated instrument will itself emit mid-infrared radiation. MIRI will therefore have to be cooled to -267° Celsius, even colder than the temperature of the other instruments, which will be ‑233° Celsius!

Were there other women in major scientific roles?

The scientific team is very large and, as is generally the case in the physical sciences, there are many men. However, a number of women did make major scientific contributions. I would mention Begoña Vila and Heidi B. Hammel.

Begoña Vila is the lead systems engineer for Canada’s fine guidance sensor and the Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS).

Heidi B. Hammel is the interdisciplinary scientist in charge of planetary exploration. She has studied our he solar system’s outer planets, their rings and their stars with the Hubble and other telescopes.

Are there many women among science communicators?

Yes, there are quite a few women responsible for science communications around the world. For example, in the US, Amber Straughn has a profile similar to mine. She is the scientist in charge of communications about the Webb mission at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. And Alexandra Lockwood has the same job at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, where the telescope’s science and operations centre is located.

How do you feel about being part of this huge project?

I joined the project recently, in 2018. When Canada first became involved in the James Webb 20 years ago, I was in high school! People were talking about telescopes that would replace the Hubble.

In the course of my career, I’ve followed the twists and turns in the James Webb saga. At times, because of the budget cuts, there were doubts about whether it would ever launch. I watched the problems from a distance and didn’t think I could ever be part of something so monumental. When I heard the mission was going well, it occurred to me that maybe someday I’d be able to use the data from the James Webb, but I never thought I would be so involved in the project. When the position was posted in 2018, I applied and I was thrilled to get it!

It’s an historic mission and I’m very privileged to be part of the history of astronomy, in a small way. This is the most powerful space telescope ever built. Going beyond astronomy, you could even say it’s the most complex machine humans have ever built. Launching it into orbit 1.5 million kilometres away, with no way to repair it if anything goes wrong, is the stuff of epics.

UdeM student Olivia Lim has obtained the longest observation time on the telescope of any Canadian in order to study the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Can you tell us about her?

Olivia Lim, a UdeM Ph.D. student supervised by René Doyon, won the contest for the most time on the telescope in its first year of operation for a general observation program. It’s a very exciting project!

She will observe four planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system, approximately 39.5 light-years from Earth. It includes seven planets of about the same size as the Earth. Three of them are at a distance from their star that would make them neither too hot nor too cold, in the habitable range. Could there be life on them? Olivia will study the composition of these planets, particularly their atmospheres, in the hope of finding molecules that could be indications of possible life, such as water vapor, carbon dioxide or ozone.

One important feature of her program is that there will be no period of privileged access to the data, meaning the data will be available immediately to the entire astronomical community.



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