Built to hunt Earth-bound asteroids, Pan-STARRS will also
survey all transient phenomena
The Johns Hopkins University is joining eight other institutions worldwide to utilize a revolutionary new telescope, funded by the U.S. Air Force to detect asteroids and comets on collision course with Earth, but also capable of discovering unprecedented numbers of important, dynamic astronomical objects such as eclipsing planets and dark-energy measuring supernovae.
Located on Haleakala on the island of Maui in Hawaii, the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (called "Pan-STARRS) will use the world's largest digital camera to produce what is expected to be the most detailed three-dimensional map of the universe ever.
The consortium's more than 30 scientists — from Johns Hopkins, the University of Hawaii, Harvard University, Germany's the Max Planck Institutes for Astronomy and Extraterrestrial Physics, Las Cumbres Observatory and Durham University, University of Edinburgh and Queen's University Belfast — also will use the telescope to study everything from comets to the exploding stars called supernovae.
"Pan-STARRSs will soon be an exceptionally important observatory that will produce stunning new views of the heavens of great significance to many unsolved mysteries of astrophysics," astrophysicist Charles L. Bennett of Johns Hopkins said.
When fully operational, PanSTARRS will be able to rapidly and thoroughly scan vast areas of the sky, allowing researchers to take images of areas about 30 to 40 times the size of the full moon in a single exposure. The telescope is capable of surveying the entire sky visible from Hawaii several times each month. Among many other important questions, that capability will help astronomers trying to determine the nature of the so-called "dark energy," which drives the accelerating expansion of the universe.
"This super-fast telescope will measure a hundred times more dark-energy-tracing supernovae than has ever been possible previously," Johns Hopkins astrophysicist Adam Riess said.
Riess, like Bennett, is a key player in international efforts to determine what dark energy actually is. "Pan-STARRS will provide the next generation improvement in understanding dark energy, which is arguably the biggest question in physics," he said.
By opening the window on minute changes in the universe, Pan-STARRS will also discover scores of new planets orbiting other stars, said Holland Ford, another Johns Hopkins astrophysicist involved in the project.
"Pan-STARRS will enable us to search millions of stars for planets every night by looking for the slight dimming of the star when one of its planets passes between us and the star," Ford said. "The odds of observing a planet passing in front of any particular star are like the odds of winning the Maryland lottery. However, because Pan-STARRS buys millions of lottery tickets every night by observing millions of stars, we should be able to find about 100 new, extra-solar planetary systems over the life of the project. This, in turn, will greatly increase our understanding of whether or not there are Earth-like planets around other stars."
Over the next three and a half years, researchers throughout the multi-institution consortium will dedicate themselves to analyzing the unprecedented flood of data that they expect to come from the telescope.
"Pan-STARRSs will be the first survey in astronomy that will produce data surpassing 1 petabyte, or 1 million gigabytes, which equals about 1.5 million CDs," said Johns Hopkins astrophysicist Alexander Szalay, known for his expertise in mining discoveries from huge databases. "Our group at Johns Hopkins has played a pioneering role in analyzing very large data sets with the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Our participation in Pan-STARRS will provide an enormous challenge, but also an incredible opportunity, to continue in this direction."
The Pan-STARRS telescope has been developed by astronomers at the University of Hawaii. It is the brainchild of Nick Kaiser of the University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy. His colleague, John Tonry, designed and built the telescope's Gigapixel camera. University of Hawaii's Ken Chambers, who received his PhD from Johns Hopkins Department of Physics & Astronomy, is the Pan-STARRS project scientist.
The telescope, which has a 71-inch diameter mirror, achieved "first light" in June this year. It currently is undergoing engineering tests and is expected to become fully operational in 2007.
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