By Ernie Seaquist, ACURA Executive Director
(Cassiopeia – Autumn/Automne 2015)


This is the eighth issue of the semi-annual newsletter for E-Cass readers. The intention is to keep the community up to date on the activity of ACURA. ACURA is the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy, with a membership of 20 universities. ACURA exists to promote the interests of Canadian university astronomers, including the highest priority LRP projects requiring funding by the Federal Government. The current projects of interest to ACURA are the TMT and the SKA. ACURA also maintains an active role in advancing the interests of its member institutions in the governance of federally supported astronomy, currently undertaken by NRC.

ACURA is primarily concerned with the promotion of and participation in its two highest priorities – the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) and the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) following the ground based priorities for world observatories in the LRP. More on ACURA activity on these topics can be found below.

Activity on the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT)

As almost everyone knows by now, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced on April 6, 2015 that Canada will join as a partner in the TMT project. The amount of the commitment was up to $243.5M Canadian dollars over the period of construction (just under 10 years). This commitment provides for a share by Canada of about 15%, less than the 20% requested, but nevertheless a significant share. This represents a very large commitment by the Federal Government to investment in astronomy, and is obviously a major success for the Canadian Long Range Plan (LRP). NRC as the signing member and executive authority for Canada, in accordance with its parliamentary mandate on government funded large astronomy facilities. The efforts of ACURA, together with its Coalition partners, CASCA and Industry, were a major factor in achieving this success, as were the efforts of NRC in providing the supporting information and documentation to Industry Canada. The success of course rests on the shoulders of the many individuals who were responsible for initiating Canadian engagement in TMT and following through with the design and development work, including NRC, university scientists, and industry teams.

In the end, the government appears to have been persuaded by a number of factors, including support within ACURA universities, led by presidents Meric Gertler of the University of Toronto and Arvind Gupta of the University of British Columbia. Undoubtedly as well, the NRC commissioned industry report, Astronomy Technologies Study on the economic benefits of astronomy instrumentation development at NRC, helped to win the day. As noted in my last newsletter, this report by the Ottawa firm of Doyletech Corporation gives an excellent account of the economic benefits of the adaptive optics work stemming from the emerging new applications to fields such as medicine, the defence industry, communications, and the consumer optical market. Another supporting factor was the unwavering support of Canadian astronomers who consistently underscored that TMT is the highest priority for Canadian astronomy as outlined in the LRP. Without this, we could not have succeeded.

ACURA is now turning its attention to the follow-up, which is a plan for its engagement in TMT governance. Already the Canadian members of the Board of Governors of the newly formed TMT International Observatory (TIO) are Greg Fahlman, General Manager for NRC Herzberg, Ray Carlberg, Canadian TMT Project Director, and myself as ACURA Executive Director. Although executive authority for TMT in Canada resides with NRC, it is understood by both NRC and universities that the scientific user community needs to be heard. This can be accomplished by a role in governance of the Canadian involvement in TMT. Accordingly ACURA is meeting with NRC to outline the nature of this role. The ACURA Board and Council have also met to discuss this topic at their meetings on May 28, 2015 in Hamilton. Convergence appears to be focusing on a process of formal consultation between ACURA and NRC to ensure that the scientific goals of TMT are achieved and that the needs of the community are at the forefront. This could be accomplished by two ACURA Committees – one at the vice-presidential level to discuss strategic issues, and another at the scientific level to glean the views of the community and formulate recommendations for the strategic level committee to carry forward to NRC. The science committee would have representatives appointed by both ACURA and CASCA, and would function in a manner similar to the newly formed ACURA Advisory Council on the SKA (AACS). The new council would in fact be named AACT to represent the TMT. Discussions with NRC will continue later this fall.

Activity related to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA)

From both scientific and technical perspectives, Canada is becoming increasingly well positioned to make key contributions to the SKA. In the recent pre-construction down-select for design concepts for the components of SKA1 (phase 1 of the SKA), Canada (primarily through NRC) fared very well, and is poised to make contributions to the project in the areas of composite antennas, correlators and beam-formers, low noise amplifiers and RF digitizers. This would represent a contribution by Canada equivalent to about $50-60M Canadian.

On the scientific front, ACURA activity in the SKA is closely tied to its support for the ACURA Advisory Council on the SKA (AACS) chaired by Bryan Gaensler. AACS has been very active in putting together a plan for Canadian scientific participation in the SKA. It has ensured effective Canadian participation in an international science workshop held in Stockholm on August 24-27, 2015, one of a series of meetings held to define the key science projects for SKA1. This will be followed by a Canadian SKA workshop in Toronto December 10-11 to further develop the plan for Canada’s contributions to the international science planning activity. AACS is also developing an ACURA sponsored Canadian SKA website intended for both domestic and international exposure to highlight Canadian involvement in the SKA. In addition, AACS has prepared a detailed report to the MTR panel on the areas where Canada expects to make scientific contributions in order to support the LRP priority of the SKA.

ACURA is financially supporting all of this activity, including the December workshop, the website preparation, the SKA luncheon meeting held at the CASCA meeting in Hamilton in May, 2015, and travel for the AACS Chair.

Overall, ACURA has its hands full for the coming year in both TMT and SKA. In addition, a new ACURA website is in preparation scheduled for completion this fall. It will be hosted at the University of Montreal. It will have a new look and feel, and will be kept up to date in both languages, which has been a problem with the old website. Thanks to ACURA secretary René Racine for initiating this project and seeing it through to completion.

Finally, I would welcome any feedback and suggestions from the community on these and/or other activities.

ALMA Matters

Submitted by Gerald Schieven
(Cassiopeia – Autumn/Automne 2015)

Cycle 3 Allocations

ALMA Cycle 3 observations will begin October 13, with the array in the extended configuration. Canada fared well in the recent allocation process. Of the 151 proposals with Canadian participation (36 as PI) requesting 1059 hours, 44 projects (6 as PI) were awarded “high priority” (grade A or B) status, with 313 hours. This represents over 14% of the total high priority allocation. (By comparison, in Cycle 2, projects with Canadian participation were awarded just over 11% of the total time.) There were 79 individuals from 18 different Canadian institutions on ALMA proposals for Cycle 3.

The 2015 ALMA Summer School

The NRC Herzberg Millimetre Astronomy Group (MAG), in its role as members of the North American ALMA Science Center, ran a successful summer school in Penticton from 17-21 August. Seven interferometry and ALMA experts led five days of talks and hands-on sessions for 18 graduate students, postdocs and ALMA observatory staff, ranging from the fundamentals of interferometry and radio astronomy to how the reduce ALMA data in CASA. The school was hosted at DRAO and included a wonderful tour of the new developments at DRAO: upgrades to the John A. Galt 26-m telescope, CHIME and the SKA prototype antenna.


ALMA data reduction requires high powered computing with large amounts of scratch space. If you need access to such computing power for your ALMA data, the MAG at NRC Herzberg can help. Contact Brenda Matthews ( for more information.

President’s Report


By Chris Wilson, CASCA president
(Cassiopeia – Autumn/Automne 2015)

Hi, everyone,

As usual, the start of term crush has worked its usual “magic” and so this will again be a short report noting a few key highlights.

The IAU held its General Assembly in Honolulu in August. Canadians were well represented among the participants and invited speakers. Approximately 40 Canadian researchers became new members of the IAU at this meeting. Two Canadians were elected to high-level IAU committees: Bill Harris from McMaster University to the Membership Committee and JJ Kavelaars from NRC Herzberg to the Finance Committee.

I am sure many of you are following the latest news on the TMT from Hawai`i. As I write this, construction is still on hold and protesters continue to be present on the summit access road much of the time. The situation makes the news periodically, in Canada most recently on the CBC news program “As it happens”. The situation remains difficult for people on both sides of the issue and we need to be patient and let the parties closer to the situation try to work out a solution.

The Mid Term Review panel has continued working over the summer. They held a face-to-face meeting in Montreal in July, which included a meeting with staff at the Canadian Space Agency, and are beginning to draft up their report. The final report is scheduled to be released in late fall 2015.

The ACURA Advisory Committee on the SKA has also been active over the summer. There will be a meeting “Canada and the SKA” held in Toronto December 10-11, 2015. This meeting will be an opportunity for the Canadian community to assess its main interests and activities for the SKA, and to identify areas for synergy and coordination. The meeting will be held in conjunction with a meeting on the Murchison Widefield Array December 7-9, 2015. Registration is now open at

Coming up this fall, expect to see a call for nominations for CASCA’s various awards to appear soon with a deadline likely late November or early December. This will be an earlier deadline than in previous years with the aim of allowing award winners to be identified early enough that it is more likely that they will be able to attend the CASCA AGM to be held in Winnipeg in 2016. The CASCA Board is also moving to establish a new Diversity Committee and will be looking for members for this new committee soon. The Board has also committed some funding from the Westar Fund to support a new application to the NSERC PromoScience program by Discover the Universe and the Dunlap Institute.

To close, I want to note four of our society’s members who have been honoured this past month. Roberto Abraham from the University of Toronto has been elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. Julio Navarro from the University of Victoria has been awarded the Henry Marshall Tory Medal from the Royal Society of Canada. This medal is for outstanding research in any branch of astronomy chemistry, mathematics, physics, or an allied science. Matt Dobbs from McGill University and Sara Ellison from the University of Victoria have been named to The College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists of the Royal Society of Canada. Congratulations to Sara, Matt, Julio, and Bob on these well-deserved awards.

First Discovery for a New Planet Finder

TORONTO [13 August 2015] An international team that includes astronomers from the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics has discovered a first-of-its-kind “young Jupiter” exoplanet which could help explain how our Solar System formed. Called 51 Eri b, it is the first planet detected with a new exoplanet-hunting instrument called the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI).

Unlike the Kepler space telescope which detects exoplanets indirectly, the ground-based GPI lets astronomers see and study these distant worlds directly by first correcting for the blurring of the star’s image caused by the atmosphere, then by blocking out the star’s light to reveal the much fainter planet. In addition, GPI is a spectrograph, capable of analyzing light by wavelength.

The instrument was designed specifically for discovering and analyzing faint, young planets orbiting bright stars. “This is exactly the kind of planet we envisioned discovering when we designed GPI”, says James Graham, professor at UC Berkeley and Project Scientist for GPI.

Graham helped develop GPI while director of the Dunlap Institute. He and Stanford Physics Professor (and U of T alumnus) Bruce Macintosh lead the GPI collaboration and are lead authors of the SCIENCE paper announcing the discovery. Co-authors of the paper include Dunlap Fellows Jeffrey Chilcote and Jérôme Maire, as well as U of T PhD-candidate Max Millar-Blanchaer.

“With development spanning nearly a decade, GPI has required contributions from over a hundred extremely talented and devoted people,” says Chilcote, who was part of the team that developed GPI’s spectrograph. “It is simply breathtaking to see all of this hard work pay off with this exciting discovery.”

51 Eri b orbits a relatively young, 20 million year old star named 51 Eridani; the star is 100 light-years from Earth. Of all the exoplanets discovered through direct-imaging, 51 Eri b is the faintest and, at twice the mass of Jupiter, also the lowest-mass. It orbits slightly farther from its parent star than Saturn does from the Sun.

What’s more, 51 Eri b is the coolest of the exoplanets discovered through direct imaging. Its atmosphere is about 430°C—much cooler than most other exoplanets. Combined with the age of the system, this is a clue that the distant planetary system may have formed through a process called core-accretion that can also lead to smaller, rocky planets like Earth.

With its spectrograph, GPI also revealed a strong methane signal from 51 Eri b. Other exoplanets have only faint traces of methane, which makes this newly-discovered world much more like the methane-rich gas giants in our Solar System.

All of these characteristics, the researchers say, point to a planet that is very much what models suggest Jupiter was like in its infancy. According to Macintosh, “This planet really could have formed the same way Jupiter did—this whole planetary system could be a lot like ours.”

And according to Maire, a key member of the team that developed GPI’s data pipeline, “The discovery of this exoplanet, made possible by the development of high-contrast imaging techniques implemented in GPI, provides new insights into planet formation and evolution.”

The Gemini Planet Imager is installed on the Gemini South Telescope in northern Chile and began operating in late 2013. 51 Eri b is the first exoplanet to be discovered as part of the GPI Exoplanet Survey which will target 600 stars over the next 3 years.


Dunlap Institute contacts:

Dr. Jeffrey Chilcote

p: 416-946-5432


Dr. Jérôme Maire

p: 416-978-6569


Max Millar-Blanchaer

p: 416-978-3146


Chris Sasaki

Communications Coordinator

p: 416-978-6613