$1 million to find extraterrestrial life

October 7, 2015

Researchers at the Université de Montréal are determined to be the first to find life in outer space and the Trottier Foundation is backing them to the tune of $1 million in research grants to help make it happen. The work will get underway at the recently set up Institute for research on exoplanets (iREx) and officially launched today, a place where researchers can share their respective expertise in meeting a challenge that is out of the world in scope and yet within reach.

“Our goal to be the first is not a fantasy or in any way exaggerated,” says René Doyon, professor of astrophysics at the Université de Montréal and director of the new institute. “Our research team was actually the first in the world to photograph a system of planets outside our solar system back in 2008. And we are now truly at a turning point in human history, where we finally have the technology to answer one of the biggest questions of all time: are we alone in the universe? Just finding the answer to this question more than justifies the investment. We really hope that Trottier Foundation’s foresight will inspire others to get on board since we need to raise a total of $15 million to successfully complete our mission.”

Matrox founder Lorne Trottier has been passionate about space exploration and our place in the grand scheme of things for many years. So it’s not surprising that he decided to put his money on the astrophysics researchers at UdeM, especially since one of their fortes is the search for exoplanets.

The Trottier Foundation donation will allow iREx to create research fellowships at all levels – from undergraduate to postdoctoral – to help recruit the best local and foreign researchers and to consolidate the UdeM’s leadership position in the search for exoplanets.

“Is there any adventure greater than the exploration of our universe? At the very least, it’s an adventure that has already completely transformed life on earth through its technological innovations,” said Université de Montréal rector Guy Breton. “The ramifications of such a discovery are beyond calculation. Knowing that we are not alone in the universe would have an incredible impact on all fields of knowledge, from biology to philosophy. It would create a revolution in human thought like never before.”

iREx: an institute on the move

iREx, established at the initiative of the UdeM faculty of arts and sciences, is now home to more than 20 researchers, with the aim of recruiting as many as 50 when it is finally up to speed. iREx researchers work in close collaboration with their colleagues from McGill University, with the objective of making Montreal a global centre in the search for exoplanets.

René Doyon, founder and director of iREx, conducts research on the development of leading-edge astronomical instrumentation for various earth-based and space-based observatories. He is also actively involved in a range of observation programs targeting research and classification of brown dwarfs, exoplanets and young low-mass stars. On the instrumental side, he has led a number of infrared instrumentation (camera and spectrograph) projects for the Observatoire du Mont-Mégantic (Mont-Mégantic observatory). He also played a role in the development of the Gemini Planet Imager, in operation since 2013.

René Doyon is the co-senior investigator of SPIRou, a high-resolution infrared spectrograph for the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, schedule to go into operation in 2017. SPIRou is designed to detect terrestrial planets (similar to Earth) in the “habitable” zone around low-mass stars in the solar neighbourhood. He is also senior investigator for NIRISS, one of four scientific instruments to be used on the James Webb Space Telescope to probe the atmospheres of exoplanets.

Photo credit: Amélie Philibert

Photo: Matrox founder Lorne Trottier


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