Gemini Observatory - Research & development

Canada is 1 of 6 member countries in an international partnership that built and operates the Gemini Observatory, twin 8.1 metre optical/near infrared telescopes, one located on Hawai’i island and the other in Chile. As Canada's forefront facility of its kind, Gemini has materially advanced the Canadian astronomical community's international scientific presence and influence.

The 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, the 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 the NRC is now engaged in are focussed 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 the 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 and a legacy of innovative technological developments have enabled striking astronomical discoveries. These include successfully capturing the first image of an exoplanet system around a star using ALTAIR, and the largest, most-sensitive giant-planet survey, undertaken with the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI). Large galaxy surveys have also been enabled with Multi-Object Spectrographs (GMOS), the most-used instruments at Gemini. All of these instruments were, in part, built at the NRC. It also led concept development for a new high-resolution spectrograph (GRACES), with a next generation of instruments now being designed and built at the NRC.

Gemini High Resolution Optical Spectrograph (GHOST)

In collaboration with the Australian Astronomical Observatory and the Australian National University, the NRC has constructed both the spectrograph and enclosure for this cutting-edge instrument. Learn more on our project page.

Gemini Remote Access to CFHT ESPaDOnS Spectrograph (GRACES)

The NRC led 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 fibreoptic 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 offered a new path toward integrating operations of telescopes to capitalize on their various strengths, while expanding the capabilities available to astronomers and industry. The 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 has made it the world's most advanced instrument for imaging and analyzing planets around stars and probing their atmosphere. The GPI represents a revolutionary leap forward in the technology that enables ultra-high-contrast imaging. The NRC built the overall optical-mechanical structure and the top level and mechanical control software, and provided the system engineering expertise to connect these components.

The GPI was an international project led by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and involving a large consortium of US and Canadian institutes, including the NRC, which contributed the mechanical structure and software that knits all the pieces together. Other partners include;

  • National Science Foundation's Center for Adaptive Optics
  • UC Observatories' Laboratory for Adaptive Optics
  • American Museum of Natural History
  • NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory
  • University of California Los Angeles' Infrared Laboratory
  • University of Montreal, the Space Telescope Science Institute
  • University of California Santa Cruz
  • University of California Berkeley
  • the Dunlap Institute of the University of Toronto
  • the SETI institute in California


Gemini Multi-Object Spectrograph (GMOS)

The NRC was one of the main partners in the design and fabrication of the twin GMOS instruments (North and South), which are still among the most productive instruments at the Gemini Observatory. Combining imaging and spectroscopic functions, the instruments provide opportunities to observe several hundred objects simultaneously.

The original instruments have since undergone focal plane upgrades that significantly enhance their sensitivity at near-infrared wavelengths (600-1000 nm). As a common user instrument, each 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 the NRC. The 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)

The NRC built Gemini's ALTAIR adaptive optics system, which captures 3 times more detail in infrared light than the Hubble Space Telescope and gives astronomers the capacity to see through the dust that blocks optical light and look into the heart of star formations. 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 represented a significant improvement over other adaptive optics systems, and with its improved visibility, astronomers are able to peek into stellar nurseries, or watch the birth of galaxies that formed 10 billion years ago.

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 Planet Imager Exoplanet Survey

The GPI Exoplanet Survey campaign has used this next-generation adaptive optics instrument on Gemini to image extrasolar planets orbiting nearby stars. The survey team including several NRC staff, has recently released the results of their analysis of the first 300 young nearby stars, detecting 6 giant planets and 3 brown dwarfs, producing the first comprehensive survey of giant exoplanets at respective distances to where such planets exist in our own solar system. The analysis suggests brown dwarfs may have formed differently than wide-separation giant planets, which is a long-standing question.

This GPI-enabled survey also 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. Eric Steinbring

Targeted industries

Astronomy, Aerospace, ICT

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