THIS YEAR MARKS the 45th anniversary of one of the most powerful telescopes in Canada.
The Observatoire du Mont-Mégantic (OMM), which houses a Ritchey-Chrétien telescope, was opened in 1978. It is operated jointly by the Université de Montréal (UdeM) and Université Laval (ULaval) in Québec.
“It’s built this great expertise in Québec and in Canada in astronomy, but especially infrared astronomy,” said OMM Deputy Director Nathalie Ouellette in an interview with SkyNews. “It’s on top of a mountain in Québec. It’s very cold, and those temperatures are really fantastic to do infrared astronomy and use infrared instruments.”
The OMM is located near the city of Sherbrooke in Québec, and is near the centre path of totality of the April 8, 2024, solar eclipse. The telescope’s 1.6-metre-wide mirror is among the largest in Canada.
Unlike the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which Ouellette said detects near- and mid-infrared wavelengths, the OMM’s research is focused on short infrared. “For [the JWST] kinds of infrared, we need to go into space, because the atmosphere blocks out that light. But very short infrared, in the near infrared, we can actually do it from Earth,” she said.
The observatory has close ties with the Canada-France-Hawaii Observatory located on top of the Mauna Kea volcano in Hawai‘i. Ouellette said they have shared astronomers and directors, and have swapped instruments.
“There’s a very close tie there; we’ve swapped expertise in infrared and visible astronomy for decades. So that’s a really nice connection.”
Laboratory and exoplanets
A lesser-known component of the observatory is its experimental astrophysics laboratory, known as the Laboratoire d’astrophysique expérimentale (LAE) in Québec, which is a branch of the OMM and thus run by UdeM and ULaval. This is where the instruments for the OMM’s telescope are built, and some instruments are also sent out to other observatories. Some of the components being built have even been sent into space.
Ouellette said UdeM was one of the partners that helped build the Canadian NIRISS (Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph) instrument on the JWST, thanks in large part to its expertise in infrared astronomy and instrumentation via the LAE. And in the spring of 2022, the lab delivered a new instrument to a telescope in Chile called NIRPS (Near Infra-Red Planet Searcher). Its goal is to look for Earth-like planets around red dwarf stars.
“We’ve been sending researchers back and forth to help with the commissioning, the calibration, and the installation of the instrument. And we should be starting the scientific program early in 2023,” said Ouellette. “We’re also hoping to be involved on the lab side, [for] one of the giant telescopes that are being either planned or built. So we’re talking about 30- to 40-metre telescopes.”
She said she is proud of the lab, the instruments being produced, and the cutting-edge science — especially in the field of exoplanets.
Ouellette is also the outreach scientist for the JWST and deputy director of the Trottier Institute for Research on Exoplanets (iREx), a branch of UdeM. Much of the focus at the OMM is on exoplanets, so team members and iREx members both use the telescope. And the people working in the lab make the instruments based on the research needs of iREx members.
“It’s very connected in that way,” said Ouellette.
Students from both universities are encouraged to visit the observatory and conduct their own observing missions, either for their own data or for someone else, to learn how a telescope works. Ouellette said this is becoming increasingly rare, because there are technicians on site that will gather the data for them.
“There’s a certain level of experience you only gain by controlling the telescope firsthand,” said Ouellette. She added that when something does not work, the student must overcome the issue. This experience in turn allows them to gain a “very intimate knowledge” of how telescopes and instruments work.
“This is an ongoing program that we have, where summer interns and graduate students go and get trained on the telescope. So we’re very proud of that as well,” said Ouellette.
Overall, she sees the astrophysics community in Canada as offering “incredible” talent and expertise.
“I think there’s a reason why we were asked to collaborate on things like the Lunar Gateway, Artemis, and the James Webb Space Telescope. I hope that this continues, that we continue to be an important partner in these missions. And that these current missions are only [the beginning] for even greater things to come,” said Ouellette.