For four years the world’s largest digital camera has been quietly snapping pictures of the nighttime sky above Maui, capturing images of all the stars, planets, galaxies and other celestial bodies above three-quarters of Earth.
Today those millions of pictures and billions of bits of data associated with them will be released to the world for public use.
The world’s largest digital survey, conducted at the Pan-STARRS Observatories near the summit of Haleakala, is being released from the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, the same place NASA stores its optical and ultraviolet-light observations.
The data release is something scientists have been anticipating for some time, a potential treasure trove ripe for new discoveries.
“It’s unprecedented, a big leap over previous surveys,” said University of Hawaii at Manoa astronomer Eugene Magnier, leader of the Pan-STARRS image processing team. “It’s an important step in understanding the universe.”
But the information is not just for professional scientists. Students, teachers, hobbyists and just about anyone else will be able to tap into the data.
Astronomers associated with the four-year project have already used the Pan-STARRS — Panoramic Survey Telescope &Rapid Response System — camera to discover near-Earth asteroids, far-off Kuiper Belt objects and lonely planets between the stars.
They have mapped our galaxy’s dust in three dimensions and found new streams of stars. They have also found new kinds of exploding stars and distant quasars in the early universe.
These discoveries and more have been chronicled in 150 peer-reviewed scientific papers by astronomers affiliated with the Pan-STARRS Consortium, a collaboration of 10 research institutions in four countries, with the support of NASA and the National Science Foundation.
The 10 institutions — including UH, the Harvard- Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland — have had exclusive use of the data for four years. Now it’s everyone else’s turn, said UH-Manoa astronomer Kenneth Chambers, director of the Pan-STARRS Observatories.
“The four years’ worth of data produced a lot of interesting science, but it really just scratched the surface,” Chambers said.
While the 1.8-meter
Pan-STARRS is a relatively small telescope compared with some of the big ones on Mauna Kea, it’s equipped with the largest astronomical camera in the world.
“That’s 1.5 billion pixels in the camera compared to the 10 million in your typical high-end digital camera at home,” Magnier said.
The project was launched in May 2010, and is the first survey to scan the entire sky visible from Hawaii multiple times in many colors of light, with the goal of searching for moving objects, including asteroids that could potentially threaten Earth, officials said.
The survey took just more than four years to complete and scanned the sky a dozen times through each of five filters.
Magnier said the resulting reams of computer- generated data include
280 billion measurements of about 3 billion separate astronomical objects, including stars, galaxies, nebulae and supernovas.
Scientists say the massive collection contains
2 petabytes (2 million gigabytes) of data, the equivalent of 1 billion selfies or 100 times the total content of Wikipedia. In more antiquated terms, that’s about 40 million four-drawer cabinets filled with single- spaced text.
“If we had printed it on one giant image, it would have covered an area 1-1/2 miles long,” Magnier said.
Chambers described the massive data dump as a census of the universe.
For astronomers, he said, the information will make finding objects in the sky easier and faster.
“It’s the basic infrastructure to find your way around the sky,” Chambers said. “Before navigation on your cellphone, you got lost. Now you know where you are. Pan-STARRS will provide that ability to astronomers.”
The survey roll-out is being accomplished in two stages. Today’s release is the “Static Sky,” which is the average of each object’s position, brightness and colors. In 2017 a second set of data will be released with a catalog that offers the information and changing images of moving objects.
The Space Telescope Science Institute will provide the storage hardware, the computers that handle the database queries, and user-friendly interfaces to access the data.
In advance of the release, the institute’s staff helped perform checks of data quality, helped write archive user documentation, tested and installed the local data storage and database query system, and designed, built and deployed the web-based user interfaces to the archive system, officials said.
The survey data will reside in Johns Hopkins University’s Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes, which serves as NASA’s repository for all of its optical and ultraviolet-light observations, some of which date from the early 1970s. It includes all of the observational data from such space astrophysics missions as Hubble, Kepler, GALEX and a variety of other telescopes, as well as several all-sky surveys.
The Pan-STARRS survey marks the 19th mission to find a home in the Mikulski archive, named after Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland.
“There are a lot of astronomers and scientists wanting to get their hands on it,” Chambers said.