Astronomers Unite to Make Revolutionary Map and First Movie of the Sky
October 06, 2006
The PanSTARRS1 Consortium will use data from the University of Hawaii's 1.8 m PS1 telescope to discover billions of new stars, new planets, galaxies and solar system objects, including potential »killer asteroids« that threaten the Earth. It will also produce the most extensive 3-dimensional map of the Universe ever made.
The consortium that will assemble and interpret these maps includes the two institutes of the Max Planck Society in Germany, the University of Hawaii, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the Johns Hopkins University in the USA, plus a group of Universities in the United Kingdom. Together the consortium will contribute the hardware, software for the telescope and data pipeline, and the cost of operating the survey in Hawaii for 3.5 years.
The telescope, which has a 71-inch diameter mirror, achieved »First Light« in June this year. It is currently undergoing engineering tests and will become fully operational in 2007. It will soon be equipped with the world's largest digital camera, under construction at the UH Institute for Astronomy's Manoa headquarters under the leadership of John Tonry. The camera will have 1.4 billion pixels – about 300 times as many as a typical commercial digital camera, and its field of view will be 7 square degrees large. This extremely large field of view, high sensitivity of the detectors and overall optical quality of the system will allow repeated fast coverage of the entire sky observable from Hawaii.
As a consequence of this breakthrough in the size of the field of view and digital detector, an enormous data flow of several terabytes per night will be collected; therefore new solutions for data handling, evaluation and storage have to be developed.
The resulting images, once put together as a map and monitoring »movie« of the sky provide a treasure trove of information and a long-lasting legacy archive for a wide range of astrophysical research, that will become available to the world-wide community after completion of the project.
Based on these data, researchers at the two Max Planck Institutes will lead a number of central key science projects:
- E.g. the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg will lead search for extrasolar planets. The PS1 survey, with its repeated imaging of the same parts of the sky, i.e. its movie mode, will lead to the discovery of 100 planets like Jupiter by the transit method which uses the obscuration of the central star to detect the dark planet transiting briefly in front of it.
- The MPIA will also lead the construction of an unprecedented 3-dimensional map of our own Milky Way and its surrounding, to understand better how our »galactic home« came into existence.
- The Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics will lead a research project on the nature of Dark Energy using the evolution of the large-scale distribution of massive galaxies. Dark Energy accelerates the expansion of the universe and its origin is possibly the most fundamental problem of modern physics.
Finally, the database generated by the entire PanSTARRS1 survey will certainly provide a large variety of input objects for follow-up studies at the most powerful instruments, like the ESO Very Large Telescope in Chile or the Large Binocular Telescope in Arizona.