The sky’s the limit for observatory project

Saanich astronomers working on world’s biggest telescope

Dr. Luc Simard sits with Spirou

As a parent who finds himself sitting in Saanich Commonwealth Place many times a week, Dr. Luc Simard can’t help but stare at the 10-metre diving tower.

The astronomer is the science instruments group leader for the internationally organized Thirty Metre Telescope in the planning phases for Mauna Kea, Hawaii. The TMT is far larger than any telescope lens in use, and will be the equivalent of strapping together 300 lenses from Saanich’s historical, 1918 Plaskett telescope at the Dominon Astrophysical Observatory.

“I just imagine how great the lens will be, 30 metres across…  three times [in diameter] the diving tower,” said Simard, unable to conceal his passion for the project.

Observatory Hill, as it turns out, might be Saanich’s least known manufacturing sector.  And the village of buildings atop Observatory Hill is about to get a lot bigger, with its biggest manufacturing facility coming soon.

The team of 55 astronomers, physicists, mechanical engineers and other dedicated professionals that work in the National Research Council office building beside the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory are currently in the planning process to build an airplane-size hangar to house the construction of the Narrow-Field Infrared Adaptive Optics System, or NFIRAOS (pronounced nefarious). NFIRAOS will be the heart of the TMT. It’s one of about 50 projects underway on the hill.

“We love our project names,” jokes Simard. “NFIRAOS will use new technology to cut through the atmospheric distortion we see from Earth. It won’t fit in any of our current facilities.”

NFIRAOS will be Canada’s greatest contribution to TMT, but only one of many crucial components. Last year the federal government committed $243.5 million towards NFIRAOS, as well as the TMT dome, which is being built in Port Coquitlam by telescope dome and roller coaster manufacturer Dynamic Structures, as well as other instruments.

Canada joins a group of major players in the project, including the U.S., India, China, Japan and many more countries all contributing in various ways.

Simard is overseeing a series of instruments, each of which has as many as seven or eight institutions contributing, in as many as four countries.

“The science instruments will plug into NFIRAOS, and we are all working very closely together. Everything operates as a single system,” Simard said. “Getting to know the community behind the science and the telescope is amazing and cool. India, China, U.S. and Victoria are all playing a big part of it.”

Basically, a series of lenses within NFIRAOS will redistribute the images on the mirror, which look like potato chips, and send them back into a ‘dancing’ mirror that, for lack of a better explanation, will adjust the potato chips into a clear picture.

The list of what the TMT will be able to do is tantalizing. Among its many capabilities will be a search for life as it will provide a first look at the 3,000 known planets. It will also detect the makeup of asteroids, and seek the oldest known stars in the universe, about 9.5 billion years older than our sun.

“If we could point the TMT to Calgary from Victoria, we could focus on a loonie,” Simard says of the TMT’s power.

The astronomer started at the NRC on Observatory Hill in 2002 as a University of Victoria graduate. He now lives in the Gorge-Tillicum neighbourhood with his family and is overseeing the creation of all the TMT instruments.

As he explains, the NRC is much more than research offices. It once housed a tower and warehouse facility that constructed, and tested, telescope lenses. The tower has since been removed as the facility is not large enough to produce the larger-than-belief lenses going in future telescopes.

In the basement of the 1950s-era NRC building (with additions from the 1990s and 2001) are ‘clean rooms’ where cryogenic technology is used to create a -30 C testing environment for prototypes.

Machinists fabricate instruments on site, many of them one-offs, using high-calibre technology and machinery.


“Certainly we have mechanical engineers, computer scientists, calling engineers and astronomers, all who would earn more money if they worked somewhere else,” Simard said. “They’re here to build instruments that probe the universe.”



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