Spencer seeking a view like no other

The history of human exploration is full of discoveries that were made in person, from finding new lands to touching the ocean floor. At the University of Lethbridge though, researcher Dr. Locke Spencer (MSc ’05, PhD ’09) is developing a sophisticated instrument that’s meant to do what humans cannot: investigate the most far-flung and inaccessible area of the final frontier.

Dr. Locke Spencer completed his master’s degree at the U of L and was the first graduate of its Earth, Space and Physical Science PhD program.

Spencer, a professor of physics and astronomy, is a Tier II Canada Research Chair in Experimental Astrophysics. The distinguished research professorship, which is supported by the federal government, provides $500,000 in funding over five years. And while the chairholder position may have attracted Spencer to the U of L from Cardiff University in Wales, it’s definitely not the astrophysicist’s first time on campus. He completed his master’s degree at the U of L and was the first graduate of its Earth, Space and Physical Science PhD program.

During his graduate studies at the U of L, Spencer worked with researcher Dr. David Naylor in the development and eventual deployment of the Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver, an instrument on the Herschel telescope. As a European Space Agency cornerstone mission, Herschel is the largest space telescope ever launched. While in Cardiff, Spencer also worked on the Planck telescope, which has provided the most detailed pictures available of the cosmic microwave background. Today, Spencer hopes to further advance our understanding of the universe by creating next-generation astrophysical instrumentation, and his work is helping to position Canada as a significant contributor to international research projects.

Specifically, Spencer is working to improve observations of our universe through the relatively unexplored far-infrared region of electromagnetic spectrum. Over half of the energy emitted by the universe appears in the far-infrared spectral region, and learning more about this area will provide clues about the formation and evolution of stars, galaxies and the entire universe.

“Right now, we’re missing pieces of information and we’re hoping to fill in the gaps,” says Spencer.

With more than $115,000 in funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, Spencer is creating a hybrid instrument that combines a Fourier transform spectrometer with a spatial interferometer. While the sensitive equipment will initially be developed in a lab, the aim of the program is to develop instrumentation that will one day be used aboard future space-based telescopes. This means the instrument must not only be compact, but also capable of surviving the turbulence of a launch and the harsh environment of space.

To move the project forward, Spencer has partnered with an international team working on related research, and anticipates that undergraduate and graduate students will soon play an important role in his growing research program. In fact, thanks to funding from the Mitacs Globalink international research internship program, an undergraduate student from India will work in Spencer’s lab this summer.

Ultimately, Spencer has two overarching goals in creating this new instrumentation: to improve upon the presently available low-resolution measurements from the far-infrared spectral region to allow for high-quality images (or “pretty pictures”) through upcoming next-generation space instruments; and to understand the spectra associated with these images in order to come to grips with the physics which is taking place at these distant scenes. The spectra allow researchers to garner minute details about these regions, such as their building blocks (solids, dust, molecules, gasses) and their respective properties (temperature, velocity, rotation, density, etc.).

“We want to see what’s really happening in space,” says Spencer. “We have to keep looking on the horizon and moving forward so we can advance Canada as an international player in the field of far-infrared space exploration.”