New B.C. telescope looks ‘back in time’ to map early universe

Dominion Radio Astrophysical ObservatoryThe Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory is breaking ground on the first research telescope to be built in Canada in over 30 years, and the researchers involved hope to make ground-breaking discoveries regarding the origin of the universe and the mysterious force driving the universe's expansion, known as 'dark energy'.

Located southwest of Penticton, British Columbia, the project, known as CHIME (Canadian Hydrogen Intensity-Mapping Experiment), will be an unblinking eye, collecting radio waves from the universe day and night, seeing further and further out into space and thus further and further back in time, to create a 3-dimensional map of the early universe. Participants in the project will include astronomers from the radio observatory, as well as investigators from McGill University, the University of Toronto, and University of British Columbia, making this an entirely Canadian effort.

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The data collected by CHIME will build upon previous work — such as from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), which showed that over 70% of the universe is 'dark energy' — and hopefully help to make sense of how dark energy is causing all of space to expand at an accelerated rate.

Three of the project's scientists from the University of British Columbia are principle investigator Mark Halpern, and co-investigators Kris Sigurdson and Gary Hinshaw, who all teach and conduct research in the university's Department of Physics and Astronomy.

"It's almost like time travel," said Sigurdson, speaking of the capabilities of the telescope, and indeed of astronomy, in general. "It's looking back into the past and how the universe was at that time and it's just amazing."

"I think people have always wanted to know how did the universe begin," said Halpern. "Why is it the size and shape that it is? Why is it so big? How did it ever get to be this old. I'm not saying we'll answer it, but we're moving that way."

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According to the project team, the observatory is starting off with a smaller 'pathfinder' telescope, which will have components from the new telescope mounted on it, to test their sensitivity and how well they perform in the local environment.

"We're going to be getting our feet wet with the pathfinder, starting right now, and building on that to make the full-size one, which I think we've been saying is about the size of six hockey rinks," said Hinshaw, calling it a "kind of try-before-you-buy approach."

The full telescope will be built in 2014, and this homespun effort promises to add valuable contributions to the international work that has been done in this field.

"Canada has been very, very effective in astronomical research but this is a standalone, entirely important Canadian experiment and we're proud of that," said Halpern.

(Photo credit: National Research Council Canada)

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