Google Partners With High-Tech Telescope to Map Universe

Scott Norris
for National Geographic News
January 10, 2007
Part of the Digital Places Special News Series
More Digital Places Stories>>

Google Earth was just the beginning. Now the Internet search company is planning to help scientists and the general public explore and map the universe.

This week the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) project announced that Google has joined their existing team of 19 universities and national laboratories.

LSST will be the world's largest astronomical survey project, edging out the currently operating Sloan Digital Sky Survey for the title (related news: "Eight New Neighboring Galaxies Found, Scientists Announce" [January 10, 2007]).

Scheduled to come online in 2013, LSST will completely survey the night sky every three days from a mountaintop in northern Chile.

The telescope's three billion-pixel imager—the largest digital camera ever built—will generate enormous quantities of data. Experts say about 30,000 gigabytes worth of images will be captured every night.

At that rate, in less than a week LSST will collect as much data as the Sloan survey has gathered since 1999.

LSST project manager Donald Sweeney says the continuous stream of images will be analyzed as it is generated and made publicly available.

"The LSST will map many billions of galaxies and find hundreds of thousands of supernovas," Sweeney said.

"We want to make the data from this world-class telescope available to everyone immediately. As a world leader in serving data to the public, Google can really help us make that happen."

Time-Lapse Astronomy

LSST will collect repeat imagery to offer a time-lapse view of changes as they unfold—from the movements of comets and asteroids in our solar system to sudden releases of energy in distant galaxies.

"The universe is 13 billion years old, but things change every second," Sweeney said.

The full extent of that activity cannot be captured by most of today's powerful telescopes, which are designed to peer very deeply into very small parts of the sky.

But LSST's 8.4-meter (28-foot) lens will continuously shift position, moving three degrees every 30 seconds.

"Over ten years we will cover every piece of sky 2,000 times," Sweeney said.

As images are generated, each one will be digitally compared with the previous image of the same section of sky.

Any differences will be immediately highlighted for further study and possible follow-ups with other telescopes.

Cristina Beldica is an LSST project manager for the National Center for Supercomputing Applications in Urbana, Illinois.

With Google's help, she said, "the data management system [will provide] real-time alerts to enable time-critical discoveries that must be followed up by other telescopes."

In addition to detecting changes, LSST will help scientists better understand the mysterious dark matter and dark energy now believed to dominate the universe.

A central product will be better three-dimensional "mass maps" showing where light from distant galaxies is bent by concentrations of dark matter.

(Related news: "Dark Matter Mapped in 3-D, Scientists Report" [January 8, 2007].)

Telescope for the People

Google already provides sophisticated online and desktop maps based on satellite and other imagery of Earth, the moon, and Mars.

The firm recently struck a partnership with NASA to assist in developing new applications and public interfaces for the space agency's data sets.

LSST director Anthony Tyson said that while it is too early to say what the public interface with LSST will be like, Google engineers will have plenty of opportunities for innovation.

"Once you have 80 parameters describing each one of ten billion galaxies and other objects, there is a lot you can imagine doing," Tyson said.

"There will be multidimensional graphics, movies, and many other products providing new modes of interaction with the data."

Such resources should make LSST a boon to science educators.

Grade school classes may be able to take a virtual tour of the solar system, watch for tens of thousands of newly discovered asteroids, or track changes through a particular patch of sky.

James Kaler is an astronomer at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign and editor of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Stars.

He said that for professional and amateur astronomers as well as the general public, "the impact of the LSST-Google combination should be terrific.

"The data stream will be so great that the pros would never—even with their immense computing power—be able to examine it fully," Kaler said.

The project "will in effect place a large, sophisticated telescope into the hands of anyone who wishes to use it for research, education, or other purposes. Personally, I can't wait."

Alan Hale, co-discover of the Hale-Bopp comet and founder of the Cloudcroft, New Mexico-based Earthrise Project, said that LSST's potential impact on astronomical discoveries is difficult to predict.

He does believe that LSST and other sky surveys will make visual discovery of new comets by amateurs a thing of the past.

But he notes that many comets are now being discovered by amateurs using publically available images from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), an orbital telescope launched in 1996.

Comet discoveries via LSST," Hale said, "will probably take place in a manner similar to that of the SOHO comets."

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