Gemini Observatory research & development


Canada is one of six member countries in an international partnership that built and operates the Gemini Observatory, 8.1-metre twin-optical/near infrared telescopes located in Hawaii and Chile. As Canada's forefront facility of its kind, Gemini has materially advanced the Canadian astronomical community's international scientific presence and influence.

NRC supports Canada's participation in the Gemini consortium by facilitating telescope access for Canadian astronomers, and by engaging in collaborative research projects with university and other partners to realize breakthrough discoveries using the Observatory's state-of-the-art facilities. From the design and pre-construction phase to ongoing development activities, NRC also engages industry in the development and integration of new instruments and capabilities to improve Gemini's power and reach.


Collaboration opportunities

Scientific progress in astronomy is closely linked to technological innovation. This innovation depends on the collaborative efforts of Canadian and international partners who can together pool the significant and varied resources and expertise required to construct and operate today's large-scale telescopes.

The collaborative Gemini projects NRC is now engaged in are focused on spectrograph and enclosure design, record-breaking fibre optics, and exoplanet surveys using the latest adaptive optics technology, to name just a few.

Technology in support of science: instrumentation projects

Telescope instrumentation is at the leading edge of technology development and NRC engages research and industry partners in the design and construction of state-of-the-art Gemini Observatory instrumentation. Working closely with Canadian companies to transfer knowledge and expertise needed to execute projects, this collaboration has spillover benefits to industrial research capabilities in adjacent aerospace and information communication technology sectors.

Many made-in-Canada Gemini instruments have enabled many striking astronomical discoveries, including successfully capturing the first image of an exoplanet system around a star. Roughly 70 percent of the observing is conducted either with the Gemini Multi-Object Spectrograph or using the adaptive optics facility ALTAIR, both of which were partly built at NRC. Third and fourth generation instruments are now under development, with NRC leading in concept development for a new high-resolution spectrograph.

Gemini High Resolution Optical Spectrograph (GHOST)

In collaboration with the Australian Astronomical Observatory and the Australian National University, NRC is designing and constructing both the spectrograph and enclosure for this cutting-edge instrument. When on-sky in early 2018, GHOST will give users the ability to study faint sources that might be on the borderline of feasibility with spectrographs on other 8-metre class facilities. This capability is of particular importance to the astronomical community as a similar instrument will likely not be available on a 30 meter-class facility until well into the end of the 2020s.

GHOST is being built by the Australian Astronomical Observatory, who subcontracted NRC for the construction of the spectrograph and the Australian National University for the instrument software.

Gemini Remote Access to CFHT ESPaDOnS Spectrograph (GRACES)

NRC is leading this cooperative effort to allow starlight gathered by Gemini to be fed into a specialized instrument at the Canada-France-Hawaii-Telescope (CFHT), allowing users to learn more about the characteristics of objects in space. Connecting the telescopes with a 270 metre fibre optic feed, GRACES combines the large collecting area of the Gemini North telescope with the high resolving power and high efficiency of the ESPaDOnS spectrograph at CFHT, to deliver high-resolution spectroscopy across the optical region.

This breakthrough offers a new path toward integrating operations of telescopes to capitalize on their various strengths, while expanding the capabilities available to astronomers and industry. NRC worked with the Kitchener, Ontario-based firm FiberTech Optica to advance the technology needed to manufacture the high-performance connective fibres, the longest ever made for astronomy.

Gemini Planet Imager (GPI)

The GPI's adaptive optics make it the world's most advanced instrument for imaging and analyzing planets around stars and probing their atmosphere. Designed, built and optimized for deployment in October 2013 at Gemini South in Chile, the GPI is a revolutionary leap forward in the technology that enables ultra-high-contrast imaging. NRC built the overall optical-mechanical structure, the top level and mechanical control software, and provided the system engineering expertise to connect these components.

GPI was an international project led by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and involving a large consortium of US and Canadian Institutes, including NRC who contributed the mechanical structure and software that knits all the pieces together. Other partners include the National Science Foundation's Center for Adaptive Optics, UC Observatories' Laboratory for Adaptive Optics, the American Museum of Natural History, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the University of California Los Angeles' Infrared Laboratory, University of Montreal, the Space Telescope Science Institute, the University of California Santa Cruz, the University of California Berkeley, the Dunlap Institute of the University of Toronto, and the SETI institute in California.

Focal plane upgrade to the Gemini Multi-Object Spectrograph (GMOS)

NRC was one of the main partners in the design and fabrication of GMOS, which has been one of the most productive instruments at the Gemini Observatory for over a decade. Combining imaging and spectroscopic functions, the instrument provides opportunities to observe several hundred objects simultaneously.

The original instrument has recently completed a focal plane upgrade that significantly enhances its sensitivity at near-infrared wavelengths (600-1000 nm). As a common user instrument, GMOS supports a wide range of scientific discovery, from high efficiency surveys of distant stars and galaxy clusters to the study of supernova or exploding stars that improves our understanding of the apparent acceleration of the universe.

GMOS was built by a collaboration between the Astronomy Technology Center at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh, the University of Durham UK, and NRC. NRC was responsible for the design and procurement of the optics, and the pre-slit facilities including wave-front sensing.

ALTtitude conjugate Adaptive optics for the InfraRed (ALTAIR)

NRC built Gemini's ALTAIR adaptive optics system, which captures three times more detail in infrared light than the Hubble Space Telescope and gives astronomers a new capacity to see through the dust that blocks optical light and look into the heart of star formations. With this improved visibility, astronomers are able to peek into stellar nurseries, or watch the birth of galaxies that formed 10 billion years ago.

The ALTAIR system corrects images to compensate for the distortion caused by turbulence (mixing of warm and cold air) in the earth's atmosphere. ALTAIR represents a significant improvement over other adaptive optics systems and a major boost to the performance of Gemini North.

Advancing our understanding of the universe: science projects

Canadian astronomers have used Gemini facilities and instrumentation to advance our understanding of exoplanets, pulsars, galaxy evolution at intermediate redshifts, high redshift QSOs, to name just the most-cited discoveries.

Gemini Plant Imager Exoplanet Survey

The GPI Exoplanet Survey campaign uses the next generation adaptive optics instrument on Gemini to image extrasolar planets orbiting nearby stars. The Survey team, including several NRC staff, was selected to carry out an 890-hour survey campaign from 2014 to 2016 to search for and characterize exoplanets around 600 stars. GPI will produce the first comprehensive survey of giant exoplanets at respective distances to where such planets exist in our own solar system.

This GPI-enabled survey has already led to the discovery of a new Jupiter-like exoplanet, 51 Eridani b. The planet is half a million times fainter than the star it orbits but advanced observation and data reduction techniques pioneered by NRC astronomers removed the bright light that was hiding the planet. The direct imaging revealed the coldest and lowest-mass planet ever identified, whose strong methane atmosphere and young age – just 20 million years old – could help explain how planets form around our Sun.

Contact us

To find out more about our collaborative research and technology development at Gemini, please contact:

Dr. Stéphanie Côté

Targeted industries

Astronomy, Aerospace, ICT

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