Montreal university looks toward space


MONTREAL – The launch of a new space research institute at Montreal’s McGill University has its director hoping it can not only help solve some of the biggest mysteries of the universe, but also contribute to turning the city into a leading hub for space research.

Victoria Kaspi admits it’s a big dream. But one of the goals of the institute, which opened last week, is to draw some of the field’s top minds to a region that already boasts the headquarters of the Canadian Space Agency and a second space-related research centre at the Universite de Montreal.

“The goal would be to develop the kind of world-class, world leading atmosphere at McGill and in Montreal in general by both consolidating the resources we have here and attracting additional intellectual resources,” she said.

“Just to have a really world-class node where there’s a hub of activity and excitement and new ideas. That’s what I dream of.”

McGill’s new centre will bring together researchers engaged in astrophysics, planetary science, atmospheric science, astrobiology and other space-related sciences in order to enable collaborations that could lead to breakthroughs.

They will also have a program to attract visiting professors on sabbatical, and a public outreach mission.

One topic of focus will be what Kaspi calls “one of the hottest areas in science today”: the study of extrasolar or exoplanets, or planets orbiting a star other than the sun.

Kaspi said there has been an “explosion of discoveries” of these planets in recent years thanks to high-powered telescopes.

McGill scientists from a cross-section of backgrounds will work in communication with their counterparts from the Universite de Montreal’s exoplanet institute to study their properties, climates and structures — research that could lead to the discovery of life.

Other researchers, such as physics professor Matt Dobbs, will help to develop new technology and instrumentation for high-powered telescopes.

This includes collaborating with scientists from across the country on an important new telescope located in Pentiction, B.C. that will study the history of the expansion of the universe.

The project, called the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME), is the first new major research telescope to be built on Canadian soil in about 30 years, says Dobbs.

He says that Canada, long recognized an important collaborator on international space projects, is increasingly becoming a leader in its own right.

And Montreal, with the co-location of the Canadian Space Agency with what Dobbs calls “some of the best firepower universities in the country,” is well-placed to become one of the hubs.

“Now Canada has realized we have the expertise here, we have the ideas, sometimes the funding and we have the leadership to do much of the science right here in Canada,” he said.

“Maybe these new telescopes that are being built here on Canadian soil will end up being the forefront in the world.”