One of the biggest telescopes ever conceived to gaze upon the cosmos will be doing a substantial share of that gazing on behalf of Canadian astronomers.
That's the upshot of an announcement from Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Monday that officially committed Canada to membership in the Thirty Metre Telescope (TMT) — a massive astronomical observatory to be constructed on the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii.
Mr. Harper said Canada would provide $243.5-million towards the telescope, corresponding to a 15 to 20 per cent share in the roughly $1.5-billion project.
Much of the money will be spent within Canada, in part on the observatory's 56-metre tall movable steel dome, which is slated to be built by Dynamic Structures Ltd. of Port Coquitlam, B.C., for about $150 million. The company already developed a design for the dome as part of Canada's involvement in the preliminary phases of the project.
Through the National Research Council, Canada will also provide the telescope's adaptive optics — a sophisticated set of computer controlled deformable mirrors that will be used to cancel out the distorting effects of Earth's atmosphere. Finally, the partnership will require Canada to pay for its share of the telescope's operating costs in return for access to its enormous, far-seeing eye.
"It's amazing news for Canadian astronomy and for Canadian science in general," said Ray Carlberg, a professor of astronomy at the University of Toronto and the project's Canadian director. He compared the announcement to other key developments in the history of Canadian astronomy, like the founding of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in 1918, or the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope in 1979.
As its name suggests, the heart of the TMT is a massive segmented mirror that is 30 metres across, giving it roughly 10 times the light-collecting surface of the most powerful telescopes operating today — enough to peer to the very edge of the visible universe and witness the birth of the first stars and galaxies.
In terms of sheer telescope muscle, "the TMT will be a larger step forward than has occurred anytime in history," said Michael Bolte a project board member and astronomer at the University of California Santa Cruz.
Mr. Harper's announcement came at a do-or-die moment for Canada's involvement in the TMT. Construction of the telescope had already been delayed a year when it became clear that no funding would be forthcoming in the Canadian government's 2014 budget. By then Canada had already put $30-million toward the design phase of the project.
Astronomers in Canada have been anxiously waiting to see what the government would do this year. It was widely understood that if Canada balked, the project would move ahead without much further Canadian involvement.
Over the past several months representatives of the astronomical community and other stakeholders have been meeting with federal officials to lobby for Canada's participation in the project.
"You don't get promises out of a meeting like that, but I felt like we put our case forward well and people were listening to us," said Christine Wilson, president of the Canadian Astronomical Society.
The TMT project is led by a U.S. based consortium of the University of California and Caltech with a combined 25 per cent share. Other partners include Japan with 20 per cent and China and India with 10 per cent each.
The Canadian contribution means the telescope has now secured more than 80 per cent of the capital it needs to move forward, which all but guarantees that it will be built, notwithstanding an assortment of technical and political challenges.
It also strengthens the case that the TMT consortium is making to other potential partners that are still in the process of deciding whether to jump on board the project, Dr. Bolte said.
The TMT is one of only two or three multinational mega-telescopes that are expected to be completed in the next decade or so and that will push the exploration of the universe into new realm. Its counterparts include the 39-metre European Extremely Large Telescope and the 25.4-metre Giant Magellan Telescope, both in early stages of construction.
Canadian astronomers have sought membership in one of these projects to avoid being left out of the next wave of cosmic discovery, which could include measuring the atmospheric composition of Earth-like planets orbiting around other stars.
"If we could see that in my lifetime, I think that would be amazing," said Dr. Wilson.