U of A role in building new telescope signals opportunities for astrophysics research and signal processing technology

Astrophysicists Erik Rosolowsky and Gregory Sivakoff are members of an international team which is building a new, state-of-the-art telescope in Chile.

Associate professors Erik Rosolowsky and Gregory Sivakoff have worked on projects involving many of the world’s top telescopes. Now they are helping to build a brand new telescope from the ground up.

The Fred Young Submillimeter Telescope (FYST), previously known as CCAT-prime, is a state-of-the-art telescope being built in the Chilean mountains. Recently, the Canadian Foundation for Innovation awarded $4.9 million to the project’s Canadian lead, Michel Fich of the University of Waterloo. Of that amount, $750,000 will be sent to the University of Alberta, where Rosolowsky leads FYST’s image processing group.

The group will employ software developers here in Edmonton to turn instrumental signals into science-ready images. Sivakoff is an active participant in the science team, and he will be using the new telescope to search for time-variable / outburst events. “This is fairly exciting because there are a lot of new opportunities to study things like black hole outbursts at a new wavelength,” says Rosolowsky. “The previous telescopes operating in this regime were not well suited for his research.”

Rosolowsky explained the FYST project as a whole, what it can mean for scientific knowledge in general, and technological developments in Alberta.

What scientific question will the group address with this project?

We want to build the world's best telescope that is observing in a part of the spectrum called the submillimeter regime.  This light has longer wavelengths than optical and infrared radiation and reveals new views of the cosmos that have been previously impossible to observe.  For example, with this new view, we will study the formation of galaxies in the early stages of the universe, making new conclusions about the nature of dark matter and energy.  Closer to home, we will also have great new insights into the chemistry and magnetic fields that influence the formation of solar systems like our own. Finally, we will also study our own galaxy, measuring how the harsh radiation from high-mass stars alters their environments. 


There are a number of large telescopes in the world. What is the case for building this one?

The location of the telescope is what will make it great.  It will be located on Cerro Chajnantor, a mountain in the Atacama plateau of Chile, some 5,600 metres above sea level, one of the driest sites on Earth. At this altitude, the telescope is above most of the water vapour in the Earth's atmosphere.  Water vapour, and to a lesser degree, oxygen, will block out the signals from the submillimeter radiation just as clouds can sometimes block out sunlight. By building in this remote location, we gain a clearer view of the sky at these wavelengths.


When do you anticipate receiving instrumental signals?

Telescope construction is underway and we expect to receive first light toward the end 2022.  From there, it will be about another year of experimental development and telescope commissioning until we are operating in full science mode. 


What are "science-ready" images?

We are specifically helping to build a submillimeter camera on the telescope, which will produce electric signals that depend on the incoming radiation.  Just like the chips in a digital camera, we need to convert these signals into meaningful images.  Our role at the University of Alberta will be to oversee development of this software as well as to author parts of the package.


Are there short- or long-term benefits for industry, economic diversification, or general community interest?

Yes, the software we are creating will improve our abilities in advanced image and signal processing.  The actual creation of images is a challenging computational problem and we are constantly improving the efficiencies in this signal processing.  The methods we develop will also help the signal processing for all sorts of sensors from medical imaging to geological prospecting. 


This project sounds really cool. Is there anything in particular that we should highlight?

Because there is so little oxygen at the telescope site, the telescope will be remote controlled.  Thus, good software and data management are an essential part of the success for the project.


CFI funding for physics projects led by U of A

Frank Hegmann, Jacob Burgess (University of Manitoba)
Ultrafast Nanoscale Quantum Dynamics (UltraNanoQD) Innovation
$3.9 million from CFI with $3.7 million coming to the U of A and $234,000 to U of M for project worth $9.7 million

Ian Mann
RADiation Impacts on Climate and Atmospheric Loss Satellite (RADICALS) Mission
$8.1 million in CFI funding, with $6.1 million coming to the U of A and $2 million to the University of Calgary for project worth $20.3 million

David Westaway, Michael Woodside
Protein Misfolding Scientific Exploration (ProMiSE) Team: Infrastructure Support for Remediation of Protein Misfolding
$3.9 million in CFI funding for project worth $9.6 million

CFI funding for physics projects where U of A is partner institution

Michel Fich (Waterloo), U of A principal investigator: Erik Roslolowsky
CCAT-prime: A Submillimetre Wavelength Survey Telescope in Chile
$4.9 million in CFI funding of which $750,000 is coming to the U of A. The total cost of the project is $28.8 million.

Mark Boulay (Carleton), U of A principal investigator: Aksel Hallin
Development of Next Generation Liquid Argon Dark Matter Detector and of an Underground Argon Storage Facility at SNOLAB
$6.9 million in CFI funding of which $3 million is coming to the U of A. The total cost of the project is $22.6 million.

Paul Barclay (University of Calgary), U of A principal investigator: John Davis
A Quantum Diamond and Hybrid Photonics (QDHyP) Foundry
$5.2 million in CFI funding of which $2 million is coming to the U of A. The total cost of the project is $13.1 million. 

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