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New NASA telescope has key Canadian parts

07/25/2012 06:07 EDT | Updated 09/24/2012 05:12 EDT
The Canadian Space Agency has unveiled its contributions to the space telescope that will replace the Hubble — a highly precise camera and a sensor.

NASA's James Webb space telescope will be seven times bigger than the Hubble, allowing it to peer deeper into the universe. The Webb telescope will have an array of mirrors seven-metres across, and the Canadian-made camera will be the key to directing those mirrors.

"Our cameras are capable of noticing changes in the direction of the telescope of one millionth of a degree," said John Hutchings of the National Research Council of Canada. "That is looking from one side of a dime to the other, placed 1,000 kilometres away."

NASA officials say the Fine Guidance Sensor (FGS) will be the way in which scientists can get results from the new telescope.

The Canadian contribution will also include a sensor, called NIRISS, which stands for Near-InfraRed Imager and Slitless Spectrograph, that can look at the earliest and faintest objects in the history of the universe while also analyzing atmospheres of faraway planets.

"NIRISS will be capable of identifying habitable worlds so these are very exciting times," said the University of Montreal's Reé Doyon, who lead the development of the two instruments.

"Unlike Hubble, whose orbit is 400 kilometres from Earth, the Webb will be positioned 1.5 million kilometres from our planet — that’s five times the distance between Earth and the Moon,” Doyon said. “At this distance, its instruments will be in a stable and extremely cold environment. In fact, as it is protected from the sun by a sunshield the size of a tennis court."

Webb is a joint project between the American, European and Canadian space agencies. The launch date is scheduled for 2018.

The mission will be to study the stars and galaxies dating back to the time they formed a few hundreds million years after the Big Bang. It will also search for planetary systems capable of supporting the development of life.

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