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Canada’s largest radio telescope unveiled in British Columbia

At first glance, it doesn’t look like anything like a telescope, but this newest instrument could help reveal secrets of the universe faster than any other.

The Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME), which launched on Thursday, is Canada’s largest radio telescope. It’s goal? To detect fast radio bursts, monitor pulsars, measure the expansion of the universe and help detect gravitational waves.

All of those events are poorly understood by astronomers. But using CHIME, they hope to gain a better understanding, which in turn can tell us a lot about our universe.

Fast radio bursts, for example, first discovered in 2007, are still a mystery. These bursts of radio emissions — lasting milliseconds — are believed to be caused by rapidly spinning neutron stars or black holes in distant galaxies.

While only some 30 have been discovered, CHIME is set to change all that.

“It should detect anywhere from several to dozens of these per day, which will be a huge step forward in the number of known FRBs we have. We’ll go from 30 to hundreds in, hopefully, a time scale of weeks,” Paul Scholz, an astronomer at McGill University, who discovered the first repeating fast radio bursts, told CBC News. 

The radio telescope is a joint project of scientists from Canadian universities including the University of British Columbia, the University of Toronto, McGill University and the National Research Council of Canada. The large structure is nestled in the mountains of B.C. at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory near Penticton.

Novel approach

Unlike most telescopes, CHIME doesn’t have any moving parts. Looking more like a collection of snowboarding half-pipes than a telescope, it consists up five 20 x 100 metre cylindrical reflectors. The design allows it to search for radio transmissions and scan more than half the sky. It’s not searching visually for objects, but rather radio frequencies. 

“The whole novelty about of CHIME is that it sees a large portion of sky at the same time and it can also observe 24/7, where for a lot of telescopes you have to apply for observing time, and you only get a couple of hours a year, maybe,” Ziggy Pleinus told CBC News while speaking about a recent study on pulsars.

While the radio telescope is now up and running, it will take a couple of months to begin the search for fast radio bursts as various components are installed.

CBC | Technology News