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World’s largest digital camera to change view of the Universe

Our view of the Universe is about to be changed by the largest and most detailed ‘map’ of the heavens ever produced.

The new ‘map’ was discussed at Queen’s University Belfast, by the driving force behind the construction and operation of the largest digital camera ever created, Doctor Nick Kaiser from the University of Hawai’i.

Speaking at the Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomy Meeting at Queen’s, Dr. Kaiser will explain how the first component of the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) is about to change our view of the Universe. By surveying the whole sky visible from the top of a dormant Hawaiian volcano, the Pan-STARRS1 (PS1) telescope will discover a myriad of asteroids, comets and exploding stars. In the process it will create the largest and most detailed map of the heavens ever produced.

“The Pan-STARRS project system has been designed to scan the sky very rapidly and will effectively generate a time-lapse movie of the entire visible sky. It exploits the combination of recent advances in detector and computer technology with the superb image quality obtainable at observing sites in Hawaii,” explained Dr. Kaiser.

The digital camera attached to the telescope contains 1300 Megapixels; the average digital camera in a high-street store has roughly only ten Megapixels. The PS1 telescope also has a field of view equivalent to that of 35 full moons and as a result the images taken by PS1 are of astounding quality and size.

Dr Kaiser added: “The observatory will take up to 1000 exposures per night and will generate mind boggling amounts of data. These will be made available for scientists to study via a revolutionary data archiving system.”

Dr Kaiser will also discuss the telescope’s hunt for dangerous asteroids.

Calculations led by Dr. Robert Jedicke at the University of Hawai’i indicate that PS1 by itself may discover up to five times as many near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) as all other survey telescopes put together.

Starting this summer, astronomers at Queen’s, led by Professor Alan Fitzsimmons of the Astrophysics Research Centre, will start a programme of studying small NEAs that up to now have been difficult to detect.

“The Pan-STARRS project is very sensitive to the smaller asteroids that pass by our planet” said Professor Fitzsimmons.

“Although so-called dinosaur-killer asteroids have been well studied, we know relatively little about the smaller objects. These can wipe out an area the size of Northern Ireland if they hit. We will use the PS1 discoveries to study their properties en-masse.”

Queen’s University is part of a UK consortium (along with Edinburgh and Durham Universities) that has invested in PS1 to support the three and a half year mission. In return Queen’s scientists will be able to study new asteroids, stars, galaxies and supernovae discovered by PS1 over the course of its mission.

PS1 will commence operations later this year, but it is just the beginning. It is a pathfinder for the full Pan-STARRS system that should be ready around 2011-2012. This will comprise four telescopes the size of PS1 and will continuously scan the sky for unknown astronomical objects.

Lisa Mitchell | alfa
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