Exoplanets are a rapidly expanding frontier of space research. (NASA/JPL-Caltech) | SkyNews
Exoplanets are a rapidly expanding frontier of space research. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Awards set up Canadian space research for coming years

McGill University and the Université de Montréal, both based in Québec, are among the beneficiaries of recent space grants — including in exoplanets.

The Trottier family provided McGill University with $16 million for astrophysics research, while $10 million was given to the Université de Montréal for exoplanet research — including for James Webb Space Telescope researcher René Doyon.

Both universities are located in Montréal, Québec. The award from Trottier’s family foundation can be considered a kickstart for the next generation of astronomy researchers. 

According to Doyon, the award will help attract more astronomy researchers and keep them employed for years, which is necessary in space research “for the long haul.”

The timing could not be better for these awards. In 2022 Webb launched, and with Canada providing some of the instruments on that massive deep-space observatory, scientists and students in the country have a guaranteed share of observing time. 

Webb is designed to look at the atmospheres of distant gas giant planets, and new observatories will soon be joining it. This includes Canada’s CHIME (Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment) that is rapidly expanding in British Columbia. 

There are numerous other observatories in which Canadian researchers participate too; Doyon is also known for his work and instruments at the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope in Hawaii.

“We have access to prime times to do these kinds of excellent research, but one of the issues is we’re a bit of a victim of our success,” Doyon told SkyNews. “We have access to these big facilities, but we need more people.”

Webb is forecast to be in space for 20 years. Doyon said long before its mission ends, it will “rewrite whole chapters on exoplanets.” Within the first six months or so of operations, his team alone had two papers in preparation on one research project looking at the so-called “habitable zones” around stars that could host life. (“Habitable” refers to a zone where a rocky planet may host water, providing its star is stable.)

Doyon also highlighted the Near Infra-Red Planet Searcher, an instrument that became operational in June 2022 at La Silla Observatory in Chile — home to the European Southern Observatory’s 3.6-metre telescope. Its main goal will be to look for planets orbiting small dwarf stars within the habitable zone. Doyon is the co-investigator of the instrument.

He emphasized how important it is to do observations on the ground and in space. Webb looks at planets transiting or going across their parent stars, which gives a sense of their size. But the La Silla instrument focuses on any wobbles the planets induce in their parent stars, which gives a sense of their mass.

“The whole big picture of trying to characterize these planetary atmospheres is to measure the mass, and we now have a machine to do this,” said Doyon, who noted that he was recently in Chile to test the instrument. He said it was working nicely, which bodes well for the coming years.

This biweekly column by Canadian science and space journalist Elizabeth Howell focuses on a trending news topic in Canadian astronomy and space.