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James Webb, a 'very Spanish' space telescope

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After decades of construction and several (many) delays, finally the telescope James Webb spacecraft will travel 1.5 million kilometers from the earth's surface to relieve us of the first moments of the newborn stars and galaxies. The North American, European and Canadian space agencies (NASA / ESA / CSA, respectively) have participated in its construction, as well as a strong Spanish component, since the Astrobiology Center (CAB, CSIC-INTA) is one of the few centers to worldwide that participate in two of the four James Webb instruments, specifically NIRSpec and MIRI.

The instrument NIRSpec ( Near Infrared Spectrograph ) is a spectrograph with a very high sensitivity, thanks to which infrared light can be decomposed and analyzed (between 0.6 and 5 micron wavelengths) with great detail.

This allows Researchers derive physical properties, determine chemical composition, and characterize the movements of observed astronomical objects. NIRSpec is specially designed to address the major scientific objectives of the mission: the detection and characterization of the first galaxies, and their transformation to the present; the processes that give rise to the formation of stars and planetary systems; and the characterization of exoplanets and, in particular, the chemical composition and properties of their atmospheres.

As indicated in a statement Santiago Arribas , CSIC researcher at the CAB and member of the ESA scientific team for the NIRSpec instrument: «The instrument has very innovative elements. One of them is a micro-electromechanical device developed by NASA, thanks to which it is possible to perform spectroscopy of many objects, more than 200, simultaneously. Another is that it can perform what we call 3D spectroscopy. This technique, which will be used for the first time in a space telescope, consists of simultaneously obtaining thousands of images of a small region of the sky at slightly different wavelengths. This will allow us to characterize its physical, chemical and kinematic properties in great detail. ”

The NIRSpec instrument has been built by ESA with AIRBUS Defense and Space as prime contractor. NASA has contributed to the instrument with the detectors and the micro-electromechanical device that allows multi-object observation. The Spanish companies in the aerospace sector CASA, CRISA (currently part of the AIRBUS group) and Iberespacio have developed important components of the NIRSpec instrument, such as the control electronics of the entire instrument, the cryogenic wiring system, and the cover of the optical system. .

Spanish researchers from the CSIC have participated in the NIRSpec instrument during all phases of its development. In particular, Arribas contributed to the preliminary preparatory work for the European participation in the James Webb and has participated as a member of the scientific team of NIRSpec since its inception. Arribas leads one of the most extensive scientific programs to be carried out with this instrument, and which aims to study, through 3D spectroscopy, the formation and evolution of the first galaxies and black holes in the early universe.

The researcher Bruno Rodríguez del Pino participates in the tests and tests that will be carried out after launch, and coordinates a project whose objective is to characterize the properties of galaxies with intense star formation.

Michele Perna participates in the scientific verification groups of the instrument, and coordinates a project focused on the study of black holes in early times . These researchers also participate in the JADES (JWST Advanced Deep Extragalactic Survey) program, a large cosmological mapping carried out in collaboration between the scientific teams of NIRSpec and NIRCam. In turn, the researcher Pablo Pérez González participates in several observation programs with NIRSpec in 3D spectroscopy mode, which aim to understand why some galaxies have stopped forming stars in the early stages of the universe.

Study exoplanets, protoplanetary systems and galaxies

Regarding MIRI ( Mid -Infrared Instrument ), it is the most sophisticated instrument sent to space to work in the thermal infrared range (wavelengths from 5 to 28 microns), and is composed of a camera, a spectrograph and a coronagraph. It will be 10 to 100 times more sensitive than its immediate predecessor, and it will have 6 to 8 times the angular resolution. As Luis Colina, CSIC researcher at CAB and one of MIRI's main European co-investigators, points out, “the combination of these characteristics makes it a unique instrument for the study of exoplanets, to investigate the chemistry of the disks around stars that gave rise to planetary systems (protoplanetary disks), and to investigate the formation and evolution of galaxies from the earliest times of the universe and throughout its history. ”

Spanish participation in MIRI has been very important, since since 2001 it has collaborated in the development of the instrument and in its scientific exploitation. The engineering groups of the National Institute of Aerospace Technology (INTA), under the direction of Lola Sabau, Eva Díaz, Ana Aricha, Tomás Belenguer, Luis Gonzalez, Inmaculada Figueroa and David Barrado , together with the engineering company LIDAX, developed the MTS (MIRI Telescope Simulator) until 2012. The MTS simulator was the optical system designed to simulate the optical signal of the James Webb in deep space conditions and that was used for the characterization of MIRI prior to its delivery to NASA in the spring of 2012.

The science team at MIRI is made up of CAB researchers who participate in the instrument's European scientific teams. Specifically, CSIC researcher Luis Colina leads the group that will study the formation and evolution of galaxies at cosmological distances, CAB researcher Almudena Alonso Herrero leads the team that will study nuclear regions and black holes in nearby galaxies, and researcher David Barrado participates in the scientific group for the characterization of exoplanets and protoplanetary disks. In addition, CAB researchers Javier Álvarez and Álvaro Labiano are involved in the scientific groups and in the MIRI orbital calibration and characterization work that will take place during the first half of 2022, coordinating and leading several of the spectrograph calibration programs.

Other members of the MIRI scientific team are also involved in several additional projects. The participation of the CAB researcher Pablo G. Pérez González in the largest cosmological mapping to be carried out in the first year of James Webb's operations stands out, including the Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science Survey, CEERS; and the project led as principal investigator by CAB researcher Javier Álvarez for the study of galaxies that appeared in the early stages of the universe (when it was 5% its current age).

As Arribas points out, “the James Webb telescope will allow us to study the time when the first luminous objects appeared in the early universe: the first stars, the first galaxies and the first black holes. In addition, it will help us understand how galaxies have evolved from these early times in the history of the universe to the present and, therefore, how the rate of star formation in them has varied, enriching the universe with chemical elements.

For Colina, «the main objective of the James Webb is to explore our cosmic origins: it will observe the first galaxies in the universe, it will reveal the birth of stars and planets and will examine exoplanets for conditions conducive to life. ”

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