By Janet Wong

Canadian research into the cosmos will be taking a big leap forward with
U of T’s commitment of several million dollars to the Magellan twin
telescopes project in Chile.

The Magellan telescopes project is $74 million U.S. collaboration between
the observatories of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, Harvard
University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the universities of
Michigan and Arizona. U of T, the only Canadian university to take part
in this venture, will provide up to $2.5 million US ($3.87 million Cdn)
to the group to help build a multi-object spectrograph and a wide-field
infrared mosaic camera for the telescopes. In return, U of T researchers
will be guaranteed 33 nights of viewing a year for five years on the 6.5
metre telescopes.

“It’s a phenomenal development,” said Professor Ray Carlberg of astronomy
and astrophysics and U of T’s principal investigator on the project.

“First the telescopes are in the south so you see a different part of the
sky. The second thing is you can see fainter objects with bigger telescopes,
so distant galaxies are a big target with this telescope. And thirdly it
has a very unusual spectrograph on it which will have the widest field of
view by far,” Carlberg noted, meaning that the telescope will be able to
take a snapshot of about a thousand galaxies at once.

“It was only a few years ago that people were doing it one at a time. A
thousand at a time means you can do things a thousand times faster, meaning
you can do huge samples.”

Carlberg was recently awarded $1.3 million from Ontario Innovation Trust to
cover a portion of the Magellan commitment. He is currently applying to the
Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI) for the remainder of the funds
($2.57 million). In the event the CFI application is not successful, the
$2.57 million would be funded with $0.5 million from the Faculty of Arts
and Science and $2.07 million from the University Infrastructure Investment

At its June 28 meeting, Governing Council approved the expenditure of up to
$2.07 million with the understanding that the funds would be returned if
the CFI application is successful.

The Magellan telescopes are located at a “superb site” at Las Campanas
Observatory, about 400 kilometres north of Santiago, said Carlberg. Two
main projects will go ahead at this point. One involves Carlberg’s research
that looks at how galaxies are built.

Existing equipment limited the ability of scientists to study the period of
time when galaxies first began forming, he said. But with the new and more
powerful spectrograph, researchers’ glimpse into this murky time will be
that much brighter. The work is a joint project between Carnegie, which is
doing much of the observational work, and Carlberg, who is focusing more
on the theoretical end.

Another project involves U of T professor Howard Yee who is looking at very
distant clusters of galaxies.

[Janet Wong is a news services officer with the Department of Public Affairs.]