Thirty Metre Telescope: "amazing news for Canadian astronomy"

April 7, 2015 by Terry Lavender - U of T News

The phrase “over the moon” doesn’t begin to describe University of Toronto astronomy and astrophysics professor Raymond Carlberg’s feelings.

“I was over the galaxy, well beyond the moon,” Carlberg said.

Carlberg was describing his reaction to the federal government’s April 6 announcement to commit up to $243 million over the next ten years to the Thirty Metre Telescope(TMT) project, a multinational effort to build the world’s most powerful optical telescope in Hawaii.

“It’s amazing news for Canadian astronomy and for Canadian science in general,” said Carlberg, the TMT Canadian project director.

Canada’s contribution represents about 15 per cent of the total budget of the telescope, which will be built on the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii. The United States, China, India and Japan are also involved in the project. The telescope is expected to be completed by 2023 or 2024.

U of T President Meric Gertler called it a “historic investment in world-leading Canadian science,” by the federal government.

“As a result, astronomers and astrophysicists at U of T and their colleagues across the country are now in a position to make their full contribution to the most important discoveries of the coming decades — greater understanding of everything from how planets, stars and galaxies are formed to the very structure of the universe.

“The government’s decision puts Canada where it should be — on the global cutting edge of advanced research and innovation in this crucial, high-technology field.”

Carlberg, who has been working on the project for 15 years, said U of T has had considerable involvement in TMT.

“During the earlier development phase I was able to hire nearly 10 undergrads every summer to work on some aspect of the telescope design,” said Carlberg. “One engineer designed all the access stairways and safety railings. Another did some optical modeling. Graduate students will work on bigger instrumentation projects that often involve substantial contact with industry.

“U of T professors help shape the entire venture, guiding it towards the most important science questions and developing the right instruments to make the measurements.”

Vivek Goel, U of T’s vice-president, research and innovation, said the construction of the TMT will require many years of effort across scientific disciplines and manufacturing sectors.

“This investment will ensure that Canadian expertise and manufacturing capacity will be at the forefront of this ambitious effort,” Goel said.

The TMT will have a 30-metre wide segmented mirror, giving it roughly ten times the light-collecting surface of the most powerful telescopes operating today – enough to peer to the very edge of the visible universe and witness the birth of the first stars and galaxies.

Carlberg said it is impossible to predict the biggest discoveries that the telescope will make, “but we expect TMT will contribute to new insights into fundamental physics of black holes and the early universe, and, help us learn a lot more about extra solar planets.”

And, he noted, the U of T astronomy students and faculty who make those discoveries may not even be at the university yet.

“Mostly it is about people who are not even here yet who will be the big users when it is ready in 2024.”

U of T is home to some of the world’s leading astronomers and astrophysics at the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics (CITA) and the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics. The university is a leading member of ACURA (the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy), which has identified the TMT project as a “highest priority.”