Scientists are paving a brilliant future for Canadian astronomy, developing ground and space telescopes and even the supercomputer brain for a huge radio telescope system.
James Di Francesco, director of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory and Optical Astronomy at the National Research Council of Canada’s Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Centre in Victoria, launches Nanaimo Astronomy Society’s fall schedule as its next keynote presenter this week.
Di Francesco will speak Thursday, Sept. 28, about Canada’s long-range astronomy plan, which is re-evaluated every 10 years.
“Because science changes, even under those time frames,” he said. “We know a lot more now than we did 20 years ago, for example.”
Astronomers update the plan as knowledge is gleaned from new programs, such as the James Webb Space Telescope and its discoveries in the year since it began operations.
Di Francesco will talk about Canada’s highest priority projects: the ground-based Thirty Metre Telescope, the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope and the Cosmological Advanced Survey Telescope for Optical and ultraviolet Research, a proposed Canadian Space Agency mission to image the skies at UV, and optical blue wavelengths.
“This CASTOR project will be the first large-scale mission that Canada will have led … so that makes it very exciting. It’s of an unprecedented scale,” Di Francesco said.
CASTOR, not yet funded, could potentially be launched and begin operations by 2030, and will observe in fine detail the universe in optical wavelengths not covered by the JWST, augmenting that telescope’s capability, while being able to observe frequencies that can’t be seen through Earth’s atmosphere with ground-based observatories. It will have about the same resolution as the Hubble Space Telescope, but with camera technology 30 years more advanced than Hubble’s, CASTOR will be able to cover 100 times more area with each image.
The Thirty Metre Telescope has received about $245 million in funding and components of it are being built.
According to its website, the TMT is a new class of extremely large optical telescopes. It will have a 30m-diameter mirror enabling observations of mid-infrared to ultraviolet wavelengths and – using the latest adaptive optics systems to compensate for Earth’s atmospheric blurring effects – could deliver with up to 80 times the sensitivity of today’s largest telescopes, 12 times sharper image resolution than Hubble’s and four times sharper than JWST. Its huge mirror and instrumentation will allow it to decipher the spectrographic makeup of atmospheres on exoplanets and how galaxies formed during the early stages of the universe.
“That project is on hold because, right now, there is significant native Hawaiian resistance to that telescope being built on the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii,” Di Francesco said. “That being said, we believe it is the right thing to wait until the Hawaiian community decides if this project can go forward.”
One alternative site for the TMT, if agreement can’t be reached in Hawaii, is the Canary Islands, but Mauna Kea’s altitude and location make it the preferred site.
The Square Kilometre Array will consist of a lower-radio-frequency antennae array in western Australia and a higher-frequency array in South Africa.
“This is part of an international consortium with many partners and Canada just received [federal government] approval to join the consortium earlier this year,” Di Francesco said.
He said the SKA will have a “huge range of different science goals” and that he can imagine looking at the distant glow from hydrogen gas in the early universe.
“Mapping that out and trying to understand how it is distributed can have a key impact in our understanding of how the universe evolved,” Di Francesco said.
Alternatively, the SKA’s ability study the radio pulses of pulsars – rapidly spinning, extremely dense neutron stars that emits beams of radio wave pulses – and how gravitational fields influence those pulses could help map the structure of the background gravitational field throughout the universe.
A radio telescope array of this scale will generate astronomical amounts of data.
“It will have a petabit per second, which is more than the global internet today … hundreds of petabytes per year,” Di Francesco said.
Managing that magnitude of data will require a new supercomputer being developed at the Dominion Radio Observatory near Penticton, which will become the brain of the SKA and will be located in South Africa.
“There’s so many exciting things. Astronomy is in such a great place right now,” Di Francesco said. “Very exciting, really energetic people really pushing our understanding of the universe.”
Di Francesco gives his presentation at Beban Park Social Centre on Thursday, Sept. 28, at 7 p.m. To learn more about Nanaimo Astronomy Society, its events and how to become a member, visit www.nanaimoastronomy.com.