New B.C. telescope to make massive 3D map of universe

A Canadian telescope bigger than six NHL hockey rinks is expected to help scientists understand the expansion of the universe and the role of mysterious dark energy.

CHIME radio telescope to look 11 billion years into past

Ground excavation started this week for the new CHIME radio telescope in Penticton, B.C. (Gary Hinshaw/UBC)

A Canadian telescope bigger than six NHL hockey rinks is expected to help scientists understand the expansion of the universe and the role of mysterious dark energy.

The $11-million project is being built at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory southwest of Penticton, B.C., where the official groundbreaking took place this week. The radio telescope will use components from the cellphone industry to capture and turn radio waves emitted six to 11 billion years ago into a massive three-dimensional map of a quarter of the observable universe — the biggest such map to date.

'It's almost like time travel.'—Kris Sigurdson, UBC

It's the first research telescope built in Canada in more than three decades and includes scientists from the observatory, the University of British Columbia, McGill University and the University of Toronto.

"It's almost like time travel," said Kris Sigurdson, an astrophysicist from UBC and co-investigator on the project. "It's looking back into the past and how the universe was at that time and it's just amazing."

Sigurdson said scientists know the universe is expanding but they don't know why, and they're also trying to learn more about the composition of "dark energy," which makes up about 70 per cent of the universe.

2,560 receivers

According to a UBC media release, the project is known as the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity-Mapping Experiment and will eventually boast a collecting area of 10,000 square metres — described as "larger than six NHL hockey rinks" — filled with 2,560 low-noise receivers built from components adapted from the cellphone industry.

Mark Halpern, an astrophysicist from UBC who is also the project's principal investigator, said a NASA project known as the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) found the universe has expanded by a factor of 1,000 in every direction since the light we currently see was given off.

Halpern said the radio telescope will collect information in the northern half of the sky, from the equator north, specifically related to the universe when it was one-third to one-half of its present size.

"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."


Gary Hinshaw, an astrophysicist at UBC and a co-investigator, said workers have now cleared snow from the site and started on the foundation holes for a "pathfinder" telescope, a smaller instrument about 40-by-35 metres in size.

Workers will put in the concrete footings and erect the trusses next week that will support the telescope, he added.

Hinshaw said scientists will build a radio telescope next year about 100-by-100 metres right next to the pathfinder.

"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," he said.

Hinshaw said scientists will place receivers on the pathfinder, making a "plausible version" of the full instrument.

Doing so will help scientists make sure the components works well in the environment and are as sensitive as they should be before all the equipment is ordered, a "kind of try-before-you-buy approach," said Hinshaw.

The Canada Foundation for Innovation has contributed $4.6 million towards the project, and while many of the scientists have participated in other international products, they are proud of the work that's underway.

"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.

Artist's rendering of the CHIME telescope, shown to scale with adult human at lower left (CHIME)