Canadian collaboration including U of T astronomers wins Berkeley prize for breakthrough discoveries with CHIME radio telescope

November 19, 2021 by A&S News

The Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment fast radio burst (CHIME/FRB) team, which discovered more than 500 new fast radio bursts in the first year of operations, will receive the American Astronomical Society’s (AAS) 2022 Lancelot M. Berkeley − New York Community Trust Prize for Meritorious Work in Astronomy.

The CHIME/FRB team is being honoured with the prize for its dramatic progress on fast radio bursts — brief and powerful flashes of radio waves with enigmatic origins — using observations from the CHIME radio telescope, located in British Columbia. Though fast radio bursts were discovered in 2007, until recently, only about 140 of them had been found. During the past year, the CHIME/FRB team has more than quadrupled that number.

The sources of fast radio bursts have long eluded astronomers. CHIME’s new detections — which include bursts from 18 repeating sources — are helping astronomers understand these mysterious bursts. CHIME’s observations of the bursts and their distribution on the sky have substantially advanced our understanding of this ground-breaking phenomenon.

CHIME is co-led by the University of Toronto, the University of British Columbia, McGill University and is hosted at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory by the National Research Council of Canada, with collaborating institutions across North America and contributions of dozens of scientists.

The CHIME/FRB team is being recognized in particular for an article published in Nature in November 2020 that identified the first known fast radio burst within our own galaxy and tied this flash to its potential source, a known magnetar — a highly magnetized and dense remnant of a massive star.

Paul Scholz, a Dunlap-NSERC Fellow with the Faculty of Arts & Science’s Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics, was a lead author on the paper. At the next AAS meeting, in January 2022, Scholz will be accepting the Berkeley Prize on behalf of the CHIME/FRB team, along with Victoria Kaspi, professor of astronomy at McGill University and CHIME/FRB principal investigator.

"Our discovery of an FRB from a magnetar in our galaxy and what we've learned so far from the large sample of FRBs detected by CHIME have been big pieces of the puzzle that is the nature of FRBs,” says Scholz. “It’s an honour to be recognized for this work by the AAS. It's taken a large team years of work to get here, and I’m proud of what we've accomplished.”

“It’s wonderful to see the fruits of a decade of intense effort,” says Ue-Li Pen, a professor in the Faculty of Arts & Science’s Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics and a member of the CHIME/FRB team. “CHIME was unconventional in so many ways. Canada provided a unique opportunity for a new, bold idea which has now confirmed us as international leaders.”

CHIME is a large, stationary radio telescope that observes the sky along the meridian — the imaginary line that spans the sky from the northern to southern horizon through the zenith. The array does not move, but as the Earth rotates and the sky moves overhead from east to west, CHIME scans the entire northern sky once a day.

This revolutionary design allows CHIME researchers to do many experiments simultaneously. And because it observes the entire sky daily, it is ideal for both mapping the cosmos and detecting sources, like FRBs, that are visible for very short periods of time.

With files from the AAS and the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics.