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Trottier Foundation gives $16 million to McGill Space Institute

The Trottier Family Foundation announced on Nov. 21 that they would be making a donation of $16 million to the McGill Space Institute (MSI)—which will now be called the Trottier Space Institute (TSI)—as well as $10 million to L’Université de Montréal. Half of the money donated to McGill will go towards building an annex onto the TSI building at 3550 University Street, while the other half will fund fellowships and provide increased support for research projects. 

In light of the donation, Nicholas Vieira, a PhD student in astrophysics at McGill, discussed his hopes for the future of the TSI in an interview with The McGill Tribune

“Hearing about this new donation is super exciting as a graduate student, because I know that this kind of money is going to fund all sorts of new students to come to the TSI,” Vieira said.

Since the TSI was founded in 2015, it has grown to house more than 120 researchers who work on a wide variety of topics, including exoplanets, astrobiology, and the formation of stars. As the TSI continues to grow, the extra space provided by the annex will allow for new and exciting research projects to develop. 

“My understanding is that the building is hopefully going to just accommodate a lot more students, because this building is beautiful. I love it, but it’s not the biggest building on campus,” Vieria said. 

Vieira studies kilonovae, phenomena that occur when two neutron stars orbiting each other collide, emitting a burst that lasts for about a week. “The reason why kilonovae are super interesting to me is that we think the reason they shine is that during these mergers, you synthesize a bunch of radioactive elements, and just heavy elements in general,” Vieira explained. 

In the future, Vieira and a team of scientists at the TSI hope to use the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to further their research. 

“We really want to point James Webb at these things, and analyze how their […] colour evolves over time, how their brightness evolves over time, and see if we can learn stuff about the origin of these really heavy elements using that data,” Vieira said. 

Research into kilonovae is one of many space-related investigations currently underway at the TSI. 

“There’s a lot of really exciting stuff going on, which is one of the things that I really like about coming into work here,” said Vieira.

Even before the donation, the TSI was already doing ground-breaking research. Professor Victoria Kaspi, director of the TSI, was even awarded the Albert Einstein World Award of Science in September 2022. 

“The ground-breaking work by the Space Institute’s researchers includes major discoveries in the area of neutron stars and fast radio bursts by […] Victoria Kaspi,” wrote Frédérique Mazerolle, media relations officer at McGill, in an email to the Tribune.

Kaspi is known for her past work on neutron stars, which are formed by the collapse of massive stars and are some of the densest objects in the universe. More recently, at TSI, she has focused on fast radio bursts, which are a mysterious observed phenomenon. 

“Fast radio bursts […] are these bursts of radio waves that, as the name implies, are very fast, like milliseconds long,” Vieira explained. “What’s really neat about FRBs, as they’re called, is we have no idea where they come from, nobody knows what produces them.”

New astronomical telescopes and instruments accelerate innovative research like Kaspi’s, and the donation from the Trottier Foundation will help keep TSI at the cutting-edge of this development. 

“The visionary gift coincides with an exciting age of discovery in astrophysics, thanks in part to the development of powerful new telescopes—such as the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) and [the JWST]—that enable researchers to explore deep into our solar system and beyond,” Mazerolle wrote.

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