Big telescope, big award

The CHIME radio telescope project, which includes leading astrophysicists from McGill University, has won a 2020 Governor General’s Innovation Award

The pan-Canadian CHIME radio telescope project, which includes leading astrophysicists from McGill University, has won a 2020 Governor General’s Innovation Award. Since 2016, the annual award recognizes “active, current innovators across the breadth of our economy and society” in an effort to celebrate innovation and to inspire Canadians, especially young people, to be entrepreneurial innovators. CHIME received one of six awards announced today.

The CHIME radio telescope, located in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, reconstructs the sky using radio signals captured by more than a thousand stationary antennas.

CHIME, the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment, is a revolutionary radio telescope located in the mountains near Penticton, B.C. The massive digital telescope has no moving parts; rather, it records radio signals using more than a thousand stationary antennas, then reconstructs the overhead sky using signal processing techniques implemented on custom electronics and a farm of customized computers.  The telescope, which went online in 2017, is a collaborative effort involving scientists, cosmologists, astrophysicists, engineers, programmers and students from McGill, the University of Toronto, the University of British Columbia, and the National Research Council’s Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory (DRAO).

CHIME was originally designed to shed light on the origins of the cosmos and elucidate the mystery of dark energy. But McGill professor Vicky Kaspi, who holds the Lorne Trottier Chair in Astrophysics and Cosmology and a Canada Research Chair in Observational Astrophysics, led a successful drive to obtain resources to make CHIME a world-class detector of FRBs (fast radio bursts), short bursts of radio waves emanating from powerful astrophysical phenomena billions of light years away. Last year, CHIME was used to discover the second-ever repeating FRBs ever recorded.

Other McGill researchers have been putting the revolutionary telescope to work. McGill astrophysicist Matt Dobbs, for example, received the 2019 Killam Research Fellowship in Natural Sciences for his project, Unveiling the Cosmos with a New Paradigm Digital Radio Telescope, which used CHIME data. Dobbs has been using his fellowship to work with his CHIME team collaborators to develop new techniques for commissioning and calibrating the instrument to create new measurements that will shed light, as it were, on the expansion history of the universe.

In praising the CHIME project, the Governor General’s Innovation Award program noted that “we have entered what scientists call ‘the CHIME Epoch’ [designed to] measure the expansion history of our universe and to map the cosmic distribution of fast radio bursts within it and to track radio pulsars. Conceived, funded and built by Canadians, CHIME presents an innovative technological achievement as well as a major scientific undertaking that addresses some of the most profound questions facing contemporary astrophysics.”

The CHIME team was nominated by the National Research Council.

An awards ceremony will be announced at a later date.

CHIME isn’t the only McGill project to win the Governor General’s Innovation Award. Last year, Joelle Pineau, an associate professor and William Dawson Scholar, was honoured for her work developing personalized, robot-assisted health care.

Read the announcement