50 Canadian scientists from various universities and research centers have come together to create the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment, or CHIME for short. CHIME is a radio telescope designed to help scientists learn more about the three frontiers of modern astronomy: the history of the universe, radio bursts from pulsars, and the detection of gravitational waves.
As explained by the University of British Columbia (UBC), CHIME is comprised of four 100 meter long U-shaped cylinders resembling half-pipes; it’s so large, it leaves a similar footprint to that of five NHL hockey rinks. The construction of the equipment was only completed in early September, when the Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science, installed the final component.
“The new telescope will be a destination for astronomers from around the world who will work with their Canadian counterparts to answer some of the most profound questions about space,” Duncan said.
When in operation, CHIME collects radio waves akin to those of cell phones, most of which come from our own Milky Way galaxy. A small number of other signals, however, originated between 6 and 11 billion years ago. As such, they can be extremely weak, and detecting them requires a level of sensitivity not usually needed to pick up on other signals.
UBC professor Mark Halpern explains that CHIME is expected to shed some light on a number of mysteries about our universe, such as how it began and what we might expect to find there in the future.
“With the CHIME telescope, we will measure the expansion history of the universe and we expect to further our understanding of the mysterious dark energy that drives that expansion ever faster,” he said. “This is a fundamental part of physics that we don’t understand and it’s a deep mystery.”
CHIME’s potential doesn’t stop there: it could also get us closer to confirming the final aspect of Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which posits that gravity is the outcome of massive objects like black holes warping space-time around them, and gravitational waves are ripples within it.
In 2016, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detected gravitational waves for the first time. While it was initially believed to support Einstein’s theory, there was additional information that could contradict it as well — information that could mean Einstein was wrong.
In August 2017, however, scientists applied new analytical techniques to data gathered by various telescopes over the last two decades. The results of this new round of analysis on stars orbiting a supermassive black hole supported Einstein.
Einstein’s theory of general relativity was ignored for almost three decades, lasting into the 1950s before it picked back up in popularity. The introduction of the CHIME radio telescope may finally lead to undeniable proof about the nature of our universe, and continue to show how influential Einstein’s work was and continues to be. Regardless of what CHIME reveals, it’s certainly an exciting time for astronomers, fans of Einstein, and casual observers of the skies alike.