Twelve researchers win $2.5M in research infrastructure funding

7 June 2013 – Astronomer building advanced astronomical instrumentation among them.

U of T researchers have won just under $2.5 million in infrastructure funding in the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s latest Leadership Opportunity Fund competition.

Professor Shelley Wright of the Dunlap Institute and the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics is one of them. Her $259,840 grant will help build a lab on campus that will develop instrumentation for large telescopes.



Telescopes collect light from the sky, and cameras inside them record images. Earth-based telescopes require the intervention of an adaptive optics system, which corrects for the distorting effects of the atmosphere.

“The atmosphere blurs the light that comes to earth,” says Wright, “It dances around. That’s why the stars twinkle. We use adaptive optics to try to correct for that twinkle in real time.”

An adaptive optics system shines a laser into the sky and creates an artificial star about 90 kilometres above the atmosphere. Astronomers study the way the atmosphere bends the light from that artificial star, and an adaptive optics system uses tiny mirrors to correct for it in milliseconds of real time.

Wright develops cameras that go behind adaptive optics systems, to actually capture images.

Adaptive optics technology is already in the world’s largest telescopes, which are in the eight-to-10 metre range. The new lab will advance instrumentation for this current generation of telescopes as well as begin work on a camera for an ambitious 30-metre telescope under construction in Hawaii.

The new telescope will be much larger than any existing instrument. “It’s about the size of a baseball diamond,” says Wright. “I’m working on a first light instrument to go behind the adaptive optics system in it. When the telescope first collects light from the heavens, we’ll turn on the camera and take the first picture.”

In addition to developing astronomical instrumentation, Wright is an observational astronomer. Her research focuses on galaxies that are about 10 billion light years away.

She calls her work a “marriage” between technology and science discovery. “I’m discovering new things about the universe, but I’m also advancing technology. The technology allows for new discoveries.”

“The CFI’s continued investment in U of T research is greatly appreciated,” said Professor Paul Young, U of T’s vice-president (research and innovation). “The tools and infrastructure these grants support allow our researchers to conduct some of the world’s most cutting-edge research. Their work will advance our understanding of ourselves and our world as well as lead to outcomes that improve our quality of life.”

For a complete list of eleven other U of T researchers to join Wright in receiving grants to advance infrastructure.

Jenny Hall, U of T

The Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics continues the legacy of the David Dunlap Observatory of developing innovative astronomical instrumentation, including instrumentation for the largest telescopes in the world. The research of its faculty and Dunlap Fellows spans the depths of the Universe, from the discovery of exoplanets, to the formation of stars, the evolution and nature of galaxies, dark matter, the Cosmic Microwave Background, and SETI. The institute also continues a strong commitment to developing the next generation of astronomers and fostering public engagement in science.