Looking out to see in

As the lead Canadian researcher for the Canadian Space Agency's contribution to the Herschel Space Observatory, U of L scholar Dr. David Naylor (Physics and Astronomy) has played a key role in the development of the Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver (SPIRE). SPIRE is one of three instruments on the Herschel spacecraft that is orbiting 1.5 million km from the earth. Functioning at a chilly -270C, SPIRE observes the universe at very long wavelengths, those well beyond the limit of human vision. Radiation emitted at these wavelengths is able to travel relatively unimpeded through even the densest regions of space, which allows astronomers to view back in time to the formation of the first galaxies. This technology is similar to, but far more sophisticated than, the full body scanners now being installed at airports.

Naylor's group designs and builds exquisitely sensitive systems to convert the energy in long wavelength photons into meaningful information on the composition and physical conditions of the astronomical objects under study.

As Naylor explains, "That's what physicists do – they think of the question and then build the equipment to answer that question."

Naylor is also a co-founder of the Institute for Space Imaging Science (ISIS) and director of its Space Astronomy Division. ISIS is a collaboration between the Universities of Athabasca, Calgary and Lethbridge. Scientists from the three institutions, and their research partners worldwide, share technology and other resources to tackle leading edge questions in space imaging.

Most recently, Naylor is collaborating with Dr. Jeff Dunn, a Canada Research Chair of radiology and biophysics in the U of C's Faculty of Medicine, to explore the utility of his detection system to the medical field, initially in cancer detection. In a recent paper, a team of Taiwanese scientists have shown that THz imaging is capable of detecting breast cancer without the lengthy time requirement for histological staining of samples and visual inspection by a technician.

Naylor quickly realized that even his run of the mill detectors are 100,000 times more sensitive, which means they have the potential to identify not only the cancerous cells, but also their boundaries, substantially faster. Dunn and Naylor are working to explore if this gain can be realized.

Some people question why anyone would study astronomy. Can research into the world around us help advance us as a species? Naylor emphatically says yes.

The universe is the astronomer's laboratory, and the instrumentation Naylor has developed to look outward may just provide us a better way to see in.

"One only has to look at the impact of the laser and MRI on society, whose roots lie in basic physics research, to answer the relevance question."