Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Canada Moves Ahead on Two Astronomy Projects

Prime Minister Stephen Harper announces Canadian contribution to TMT with astronomers, including RASC President James Edgar (right).

I have often had occasion to criticize Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, but here they get a bouquet for two recent announcements that are good for Canadian astronomy.

Earlier this week, the prime minister announced that Canada will contribute $243.5 million over the next ten years to take part in the Thirty Meter Telescope, which will be the world’s largest telescope. TMT is planned for construction on the summit of Mauna Kea volcano in Hawaii, the northern hemisphere’s prime site for telescopes.

Canada will be joining the United States, Japan, India and China in TMT, and our contribution will be very high profile. The telescope will be enclosed inside a twenty-two-storey-high building designed and fabricated by Dynamic Structures Ltd of Port Coquitlam, B.C. The telescope itself will use adaptive optics to reduce the effects of the Earth’s atmosphere on seeing, and allow the telescope to view distant galaxies and planets orbiting other stars.

Canada has long been a part of the TMT project, but a formal commitment of funds by the Harper government had been long delayed, causing anxiety about whether Canada was actually on board. But with an election coming over the horizon, the announcement could no longer be held up. 

This week’s announcement is notable because of the personal participation of Prime Minister Harper. While Canadian prime ministers were involved in long-ago decisions like the one a century ago to build the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Victoria, they have not been seen at astronomical facilities. 

This week’s announcement took place at the Gordon M. Southam Observatory alongside the planetarium in Vancouver, and Harper appeared with Canadian astronomers, including James Edgar, the President of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. Such recognition for Canada’s premier organization for amateur astronomers is also a new and positive development.

The TMT announcement follows a more modest announcement in late March that the Canadian Space Agency is increasing Canada’s contribution to the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope that is due for launch in 2018.

While Canada was not formally involved in Hubble, many Canadian astronomers have used the space telescope. On JWST, Canada is contributing its fine guidance sensor and a spectrograph that will seek out the most distant objects in the universe. That translates to more than $160 million in Canadian space spending, including $2.6 million announced in March that will help the Canadian contractor Com Dev International integrate its components into JWST.

Both these announcements mean research opportunities for Canadian astronomers, who stand at the front ranks of world astronomy. They also mean jobs for the people designing and fabricating the building for the TMT and the instruments on JWST.