Irish scientists helped build biggest telescope ever created and sent into space at Christmas

Irish Scientists Helped Build Biggest Telescope Ever Created And Sent Into Space At Christmas Irish Scientists Helped Build Biggest Telescope Ever Created And Sent Into Space At Christmas
Dr Patrick Kavanagh helped construct JWST, and he will describe the Irish work that went in to the biggest telescope built by the human race, and all the discoveries it is expected to make. Photo: Getty Images
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James Cox

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the biggest telescope ever created, was launched into space on Christmas Eve and one of the Irish scientists who worked on it will deliver an Astronomy Ireland talk this evening.

Dr Patrick Kavanagh helped construct JWST, and he will describe the Irish work that went in to the biggest telescope ever built, and the discoveries it is expected to make.

The JWST is an international collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency. It is the largest and most expensive object ever flown and is 100 times more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope, which it has replaced.

Irish involvement

Ahead of the talk, David Moore of Astronomy Ireland told "The great thing for us is there's Irish involvement. Although Ireland is only a small part of the ESA, we're punching above our weight by helping to build one of the instruments, which means Irish astronomers know the thing inside out, and they've actually built some of the parts and written a lot of the software. It will give them first dibs, if you like, on some of the information that comes back, that's one of the advantages of helping to build it.


"Dr Patrick Kavanagh worked on James Webb, so he's going to tell us about the telescope and the Irish involvement. We're getting it from the horse's mouth as it were, we couldn't think of a better speaker to tell us about the James Webb Telescope. What Astronomy Ireland does is we try to connect the general public, especially kids, to what's being discovered about the universe."

Mr Moore added: "The way you get a contract from the European Space Agency is, when they agreed they would foot some of the budget for the James Webb Telescope with the Americans and Canadians, they then put out tenders saying what parts they're going to build. There are 20 countries in the ESA. The ESA doesn't care where you're from, they look at it on merit, so the Irish won this contract, they weren't just given it.

"When I was a kid there were no jobs in space or in technology. We now have a hugely science-based economy, it's 60 per cent of our GDP.

"Any parent who finds their child interested in space should really nurture that interest. Astronomy is not just a bunch of people looking at the night sky, it's real jobs, real fun, real entertainment."


Mr Moore said the $10 billion project is "probably the most important thing the human race has ever built".

Big Bang

He explained that the telescope could eventually prove, or disprove, the Big Bang theory on how the universe came to be.

"It can effectively look back in time because when you look out into deep space the stars in the night sky are hundreds of thousands of years old. When you have a telescope like this you can see objects that are millions of years since the light has been travelling to it.

"The Hubble can't see back to the Big Bang which is as far as you can possibly go, about 14 billion years, but the James Webb was designed to do that, so it will see the very first stars that started to shine in the universe.

"All we've got at the moment are computer simulations of what we think happened after the Big Bang, very theoretical, so this will either destroy that theory or confirm it, probably modify it to be honest.

"It can do loads of other things as well, it can actually see planets going around other stars and measure their atmosphere.

"If we were to measure the earth's atmosphere from another star we'd find oxygen in the atmosphere, you don't get oxygen occurring naturally, it's too inactive, so that would be a certain indication that there's plant life at least on the planet you're looking at. It could have some really breakthrough discoveries there as well.

"The Hubble Telescope's goal was to measure the age of the universe, back then people thought 10 and 20 billion years, now we know it's 13.8. The James Webb Telescope's primary mission is to see the first stars in the universe, we think they were monsters about a million times brighter than the sun. It will help us understand our place in the universe. It will also answer questions we haven't even thought of yet."

Mr Moore is encouraging anyone with an interest in space to join Astronomy Ireland's new beginner classes, with more information available on

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