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Team dragonfly

What if you could do ground-breaking astronomy with equipment you could buy at a good camera store?

U of T cosmologist Roberto Abraham first asked that question six years ago, and his life hasn’t been the same since

Like many ideas, good and bad, this one was literally sketched out on a napkin.

Bob Abraham, a professor in U of T’s Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics, was having dinner with a fellow astronomer, Pieter van Dokkum of Yale University, and they were, well… complaining.

“We were bemoaning the fact that everything just took so long,” Abraham recalls. “Even just a routine instrument, we were talking tens of millions of dollars and 10 years to build the thing. And we were like, ‘This is bonkers.’”

But instead of crying about it and going home, they set about trying to find an alternative. Before the evening was out, they’d come up with the idea for Dragonfly.

Working with cutting-edge Canon telephoto lenses designed for wildlife photography and available from any pro photography store, they built a telescope that resembles the compound eye of a dragonfly. Soon they were collecting ultra-faint light from distant corners of the universe, using three lenses strapped together.

They used this compound space-eye to observe the faintest light from the night sky, and almost immediately started making surprising discoveries, such as ultra-dim galaxies that had previously been missed.

The paper-napkin idea turned out to be a very good one indeed, and has consumed Abraham’s life ever since.

He and van Dokkum have expanded Dragonfly from three lenses to eight, then 24, and now 48. And they still feel like they’re only just getting started.

“Dragonfly has kind of become a finder scope for the Hubble and Keck telescopes,” says Abraham. Dragonfly looks at a broad area of the sky, and when its research team finds something interesting, other scientists use those much larger and more powerful telescopes to look at it in more detail.

“We took some inspiration from Silicon Valley,” Abraham says. “It’s okay in Silicon Valley to throw a bunch of stuff against the wall and see what sticks, as long as you do it quickly. So Dragonfly was basically an attempt to do Silicon-Valley-style science. And it’s been this unbelievable success story.”

That success is the reason U of T Astronomy is asking for your support for the Dragonfly Telescope. The potential is enormous, and Abraham and his co-investigators are just getting started. With relatively modest contributions from donors, they can try new innovations that will make Dragonfly an even more powerful tool.

Their plans include:

  • upgrading the telescope with experimental cameras manufactured by Diffraction Limited of Ottawa
  • adding still more lenses, which would allow the telescope to see deeper into space
  • and—perhaps most exciting—equipping the lenses with filters that would allow Dragonfly to see the faint glow of hydrogen atoms in the Cosmic Web, which traces the dark matter between galaxies.

“These are three good things to do,” says Abraham. “Which one we’ll do first depends on how well the prototypes work.

“We can do all this for a fraction of the cost of a conventional telescope,” he adds. “But it’s a mistake to say we’re all about the bang for the buck—we’re all about the bang.”

Check out the Planet ArtSci podcast with Roberto Abraham:

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Lauren Diez d’Aux 
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About U of T Astronomy

DUNLAP INSTITUTE FOR ASTRONOMY & ASTROPHYSICS

The Dunlap Institute focuses on the design, fabrication and implementation of astronomical instrumentation, on observational research, on training the next generation of astronomers, and on public education. It was founded in 2008 thanks to a generous gift from the Dunlap Family. Learn more ›

CANADIAN INSTITUTE FOR THEORETICAL ASTROPHYSICS

Hosted by U of T, CITA is a nationally supported research centre for studies in theoretical astrophysics, including the origin and evolution of the universe, and the many other phenomena revealed by modern astronomy. Learn more 

DEPARTMENT OF ASTRONOMY & ASTROPHYSICS

The department is Canada’s preeminent home for teaching and research on solar system dynamics, stars, stellar systems, the interstellar medium, the galaxy, quasars, galaxy clusters and cosmology. Learn more 


Contact

Lauren Diez d’Aux
Senior Development Officer
Faculty of Arts and Science

e: lauren.diezdaux@utoronto.ca
t:  416-978-2720