A survey of the stars that will guide generations of astronomers and be available even to schoolchildren is under way at a remote New Mexico mountaintop using what experts call the most complex camera ever built.
The $77 million effort to map the heavens will probe 40 times farther into the universe than any earlier survey, taking pictures in three dimensions and in five colors, astronomers announced Monday.Called the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, the project will provide a stellar atlas that is 100 times clearer than star charts used for decades and will pinpoint the location of 100 million galaxies.
Yet, the survey will produce images available to anyone with a computer. Astronomers say that one day schoolchildren will be able to display on their computers the same images experts used to study the heavens.
"This is not just a telescope," said Jim Crocker of Johns Hopkins University, one of nine organizations participating in the project. "This is a science factory."
Members of the project team unfurled a 35-foot-long photo swatch of the heavens taken during the project's "first light," the initial pictures taken by a new telescope. The photo contained thousands upon thousands of stellar objects in different colors.
"What you see is 1 percent of one second of data from this instrument," said Bruce Margon of the University of Washington, the science director of the project. He said that by the time the survey is finished, it will have collected 10 terabytes (10 followed by 13 zeros) of data. The amount of data will equal what is now stored in the Library of Congress.
The goal is to completely map, in three dimensions, more than half of the heavens, cataloging 100 million of the brightest galaxies and 100,000 quasars. From its location at Apache Point, N.M., north of White Sands, the telescope cannot see some of the sky over the Southern Hemisphere of Earth.
For the galaxy catalog, the telescope will be able to detect objects out to 2 billion light years. For quasars, the most energetic objects in the universe, the telescope will see out to 10 billion light years.
"For quasars, we get to the very end (of the universe), as deep as the Hubble (space telescope)," said Neta Bahcall, a Princeton astronomer and a member of the survey team.
The 2.5-meter telescope is teamed with a digital camera that Mike Turner of Fermilab, one of the sponsoring institutions, called "the most complicated camera ever built."
The camera includes 54 light amplifiers and is able to gather more pixels of light than the human eye.