A powerful new telescope with unprecedented abilities to image the sky and capture signals from space is set to begin formal operations. The Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) will map the largest volume of space ever surveyed, expanding our knowledge of the universe and perhaps providing answers to some of astronomy's most enduring mysteries.

CHIME, which was unveiled in Kaleden, British Columbia, is a radio telescope made up of four 100 metre-long 'half-pipe' shaped reflectors, a unique design which means that, unlike any other telescope, it has no round dish and no moving parts.

"CHIME 'sees' in a fundamentally different way from other telescopes. A massive supercomputer is used to process incoming radio light and digitally piece together an image of the radio sky", said Dr Keith Vanderlinde from the University of Toronto.

It will be collecting so much information from the skies above at any one time that the amount of data will be comparable to all the data in the world's mobile networks. Its advanced computers will undertake seven quadrillion operations every second just to process it.

"All that computing power also lets us do things that were previously impossible: we can look in many directions at once, run several experiments in parallel, and leverage the power of this new instrument in unprecedented ways", Vanderlinde said.

The telescope detects radio frequencies which will enable scientists to create a three-dimensional map of space on an unprecedented scale. This will, among other things, provide us with a better understanding of the universe's history, the nature of distant stars and the physics of gravitational waves, three major areas of interest in modern astronomy.

"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. This is a fundamental part of physics that we don't understand and it's a deep mystery. This is about better understanding how the universe began and what lies ahead," said Mark Halpern, a principal investigator with CHIME.

CHIME telescope
The CHIME telescope array at Kaleden, British Columbia, Canada. Andre Renard, Dunlap Institute, CHIME

In addition, the frequencies that CHIME detects make it ideal for the study of mysterious phenomena known as fast radio bursts – short but powerful flashes of radio waves which have long puzzled scientists, with some even venturing to suggest they may be evidence for the existence of alien life.

"CHIME's unique design will enable us to tackle one of the most puzzling new areas of astrophysics today - fast radio bursts. The origin of these bizarre extragalactic events is presently a mystery, with only two dozen reported since their discovery a decade ago. CHIME is likely to detect many of these objects every day, providing a massive treasure trove of data that will put Canada at the forefront of this research," said Victoria Kaspi, one of the lead investigators at CHIME.