Star search

Star search

A new generation of super telescopes is giving B.C. researchers a front-row seat to the universe
June 20, 2003

Every night, astronomers around the globe scour the sky looking for the ultimate prize.

As they probe the billions of planetary systems—including the 30 billion or so they believe make up the Milky Way alone—they're hoping to find even the faintest trace of what they call "extrasolar planets." In the past few years, the hunt for these planets has become one of the biggest prizes in astronomy. Why? Because their discovery may help astronomers answer one of the human race's most profound and fundamental questions: Is there life out there?

"Finding one of these planets has been compared to looking for a firefly buzzing around a lighthouse from hundreds of kilometres away," says Dr.Colin Bradley, research director at the University of Victoria's Adaptive Optics and Systems Laboratory. "It's fascinating to think we could receive information directly from another planet for the first time."

Now, with support from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, researchers at the University of Victoria's Adaptive Optics and Systems Laboratory are getting the tools they need to zoom in and get a clearer picture of the universe. CFI funding is enabling the university's Experimental Laboratory for Instrument Development in Astrophysics to retrofit a number of older telescopes with "adaptive optics." The new adaptive optics technology works to filter light arriving from the galaxies in such a way that it helps optical telescopes see planets that were previously obscured by the light from their host stars.

Stars and planets are usually obscured because temperature differences among air pockets blow across the telescope's line of sight and warp incoming light. "Stars twinkle because of turbulence in atmospheric layers," Dr. Bradley explains. "An adaptive optics system senses and adjusts for this turbulence, giving an exceptionally fine view of space."

Once a planet's light has been captured by a telescope fitted with adaptive optics, scientists can measure gases like carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapour that make up its atmosphere. Any of these compounds could indicate the presence of, or potential for, life.

To date, no one has actually managed to look directly at a planet outside our solar system. The primary technique used to study planets so far is known as radial velocity, which measures shifts in a star's light caused by the gravitational pull of a nearby planet. Although radial velocity doesn't allow astronomers to look directly at the planet, it has shown that there are definitely planets worth a closer look.

In fact, until recently, the search for extrasolar planets wasn't expected to take place from the ground. The space-based telescope was seen as the astronomer's only option. The Hubble Space Telescope, for example, has produced images in the past 10 years that have dramatically advanced our understanding of deep space.

Retrofitted with the latest optics technology, new ground-based super telescopes are changing the way we view deep space and ushering in a new age in astronomy.

Benefits

Unlocking the secrets of the universe is a job that's too big for any one country, let alone a single university. And only the most committed countries can expect to make a meaningful contribution to the hyper-competitive world of astronomy.

That's why the University of Victoria (UVic) is working with industry partners and the Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics (HIA) at the National Research Council of Canada to keep Canada at the forefront of astronomy. By serving as a magnet for experts in a wide range of disciplines—mechanical engineering, computer science, physics, astronomy—UVic and HIA are ensuring that Canada remains a serious player in the quest to understand the mysteries of space.

"It's a race to see who teams up with who to develop the next generation of telescopes. Right now it's like the United Nations of science and Canada is a leader," says Dr. Colin Bradley, research director at UVic's Adaptive Optics and Systems Laboratory.

The new facility at UVic's Experimental Laboratory for Instrument Development in Astrophysics will have a direct impact on several projects being planned by astronomers in Canada and other countries. These include the James Webb Space Telescope, the square kilometre array, the large millimetre array, and the very large optical telescope.

Victoria was a natural choice for the facility because the B.C. capital has the largest per-capita concentration of astronomers in Canada, and offers graduate study possibilities unparalleled elsewhere in the country.

Partners

To many, it may seem that astronomers spend long nights alone in their observatories. In reality, there's a vast network of global partners working together to support each individual venture into deep space.

This sense of teamwork and discovery is alive and well at the University of Victoria's (UVic) experimental laboratory for instrument development in astrophysics. Astronomers and engineers working at UVic and at the National Research Council's Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics are collaborating on the prestigious Gemini Observatory.

The Gemini Observatory is an important example of Canadian scientists working in a global partnership to further astronomy. It's an international partnership comprised of two telescopes. Each one has a main mirror that's 8.1 metres across. One telescope is located on Hawaii's Mauna Kea, the other on Chile's Cerro Pachon. Aside from Canada, the project is supported by Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Designing astronomical instruments pushes technology to its limit, blending a varied range of tools from optics and computer simulation to high-speed computing. It also boosts the competitiveness of Canada's hi-tech industry. The hi-tech industrial partners working with UVic include companies that specialize in software, advanced cameras, and structural design.

The hi-tech industrial partners working with UVic include a variety of Canadian companies. For example, software from Ottawa's QNX Software Systems helps to drive the computers that run adaptive optics simulations. Advanced camera technology, from Dalsa Corporation in Waterloo, is also used in adaptive optics research. And when it comes time to design an observatory, Amec Dynamic Structures in Port Coquitlam brings innovative manufacturing and construction expertise to the table.

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