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World astronomers unite to harness hawaiian super-telescope

Astronomers from several major research institutions around the world, including three in the UK, have signed an agreement to exploit a revolutionary new survey telescope sited in Hawaii which is expected to discover billions of new stars, galaxies and solar system objects, and to identify potential ‘killer asteroids’ that threaten the Earth.

Leading UK astronomers based at Durham University, Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Edinburgh have now joined a select group of US and German institutions to exploit an advanced new telescope, Pan-STARRS. Sited on the Hawaiian island of Maui, one of the world's prime astronomical sites, it is equipped with the world's largest digital camera.

While monitoring the sky in the hunt for asteroids that might be heading our way, Pan-STARRS will also build up the most detailed image yet of the universe around us. This will enable astronomers to investigate small solar system objects and search for exploding stars (supernovae), to produce 3-dimensional maps of galaxies and dark matter, to measure the properties of the dark energy and to investigate how galaxies have evolved over half the age of the universe.

Scientists' perception of the cosmos has fundamentally changed in the past few years. Novel technologies have led to a swathe of exciting discoveries, from new planets orbiting nearby stars to the mysterious dark energy that is causing our universe to expand at an ever accelerating rate. The cutting-edge imaging capability of Pan-STARRS will open up a new window onto these fundamental problems.

Cosmologist and Director of Durham's Institute for Computational Cosmology, Professor Carlos Frenk said: “Pan-STARRS is a truly innovative concept that will enable us to tackle some of the outstanding questions in science today, from the threat of killer asteroids to the origin of galaxies and the identity of the dark matter and the dark energy. New results and insights are inevitable.”

Professor Alan Fitzsimmons of Queen’s University shares Professor Frenk’s enthusiasm. He said: “We know very little about asteroids less than 1 km in size. Yet, they hit our Earth much more frequently than their larger cousins. Pan-STARRS has been brilliantly designed to find these objects, and will allow astronomers around the world to understand the risk posed by them.”

John Peacock, Cosmology Professor at Edinburgh University added: “Pan-STARRS will be an amazing tool for studying the make-up of the universe. It will let us measure the properties of dark matter and dark energy in many different ways, more precisely than ever before. It’s a privilege to join such a great project, and we’re all very excited at what lies ahead”.

Over the next three and half years more than 30 of the world’s leading scientists and their students will be committed to analysing the unprecedented flood of data, discovering asteroids and comets, mapping the cosmos and getting closer to the origins of our universe.

The international consortium includes Durham, Edinburgh and Queen’s Universities in the UK, the Max-Planck-Institutes for Astronomy and Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany, and Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University and Las Cumbres Observatory in the USA. The full consortium will contribute about $10 million dollars (5 million pounds) to cover the cost of operating the telescope in Hawaii, which was constructed at a cost of about $40 million dollars (£20 million pounds). Funding for the UK participants is provided by their universities and by the Ogden Trust.

Professor Carlos Frenk | alfa
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