Observatories connect to advance astronomy

July 19, 2016 — Maunakea, Hawaii

Working together to expand capabilities

Atop Maunakea, a 4,200-metre-high dormant volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii, sit two of the world’s most impressive observatories, respectively housing the Canada-France-Hawaii and Gemini North telescopes. Each distinct in its role and purpose, these massive and highly-specialized telescopes provide some of the clearest and most detailed views of our universe.

While the Gemini North is able to explore the northern sky using optical and infrared light, the need to acquire high-resolution spectroscopic capabilities meant gaining access to its neighbour, the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT). The CFHT houses a specialized high-resolution Echelle SpectroPolarimetric Device for the Observation of Stars (ESPaDOnS).

Since discovery often depends upon access to the best technology, an ambitious project was designed to connect the Gemini North telescope to the ESPaDOns, a feat that would require ingenuity, precision and a 270-metre fibre optic cable, the likes of which had never been built for the world of astronomy. FiberTech Optica, a provider of integrated fibre optic solutions from Kitchener, Ontario, was brought in to construct the high-performance optical fibre to connect the two telescopes across what equates to the length of two-and-a-half football fields, with the National Research Council (NRC), Canada’s premier research and technology organization, leading the technology development.

High-resolution collaboration

The joining of these two telescopes represents a massive expansion of their capabilities, combining the large collecting area of the Gemini North with the high-resolving power of the ESPaDOnS spectrograph at CFHT, significantly expanding the range of capabilities for astronomers.

Inspired by the drive to expand discovery potential, teams from both the CFHT and the Gemini North knew that connecting the two systems would rely upon strong collaboration to capitalize on the strengths of both facilities. “The Gemini Remote Access to ESPaDOnS (GRACES) project represents the best in collaborative science," says Gemini director Markus Kissler-Patig. "This goes way beyond a few scientists working together. The success of GRACES is a result of three entire institutions—and industry—coming together to create something none of us could ever accomplish on our own."

Doug Simons, executive director of CFHT, adds, “There was considerable skepticism that this project could make a scientifically competitive instrument, but the hard work, tenacity and ingenuity of many people resulted in a remarkable capability.”

Looking to the skies and beyond

With a mandate to support Canada's national science infrastructure, NRC’s role in operating both the Gemini and CFHT observatories not only opens doors to enabling new technologies, but also ensures that future innovations will find their way to industrial applications, creating benefits across commercial sectors in Canada and abroad.

Following four years of planning and development, the new fibre optic cable provides a robust, reliable connection between the two telescopes. “Building fibre for astronomical purposes was a new and complex challenge,” says Rafal Pawluczyk, president of FiberTech Optica. “But working with NRC, we developed the expertise to build the longest, most reliable cable ever used in astronomy. That success has led us to projects with MIT and other partners.”

Such ground-breaking innovation and collaboration has dramatically enhanced the capability of the Gemini North telescope. This has led to an increase in demand for Gemini observing time from Canadian astronomers and their international partners, all with the goal of obtaining a greater understanding of the universe. GRACES is proving to be a high performer, generating impressive data, excitement and new opportunities for researchers.

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