Astronomers seek widest view ever of the universe with new telescope

January 11, 2015 by Sandi Doughton, The Seattle Times
Credit: LSST

At the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society last week, the booth devoted to a revolutionary new telescope called the LSST got a lot of traffic.

Staffed by scientists from the University of Washington and other institutions, the display didn't feature sexy pictures of galaxies or nebulae, but it did include a sign that said LSST is hiring.

That was welcome news in a field where jobs can be hard to come by. It's also proof that after decades of planning and fundraising, a dream nurtured in part by UW and backed by Seattle billionaires is well on its way to reality.

On Saturday in Tuscon, Ariz., former Microsoft executive Charles Simonyi joined other luminaries to celebrate completion of the telescope's 20-ton mirror assembly, which includes the largest convex mirror ever made. Simonyi, who has twice visited the International Space Station as a tourist, put up $20 million for the mirror. His former boss Bill Gates chipped in $10 million.

Construction of the $700 million telescope will begin in earnest this spring on a mountaintop in Chile's Atacama Desert.

"We hope to get the first data, the first light, in 2019," said UW astronomer Zeljko Ivezic, project scientist for the telescope.

LSST stands for Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, a name even astronomers agree is clunky for what has been described as the world's most powerful sky-mapping machine. While most telescopes can take only snapshots of a narrow sliver of space, LSST will scan the heavens continuously in wide swaths.

The telescope will produce an image of the entire southern sky every three days - a feat that would take the Hubble Space Telescope 120 years to accomplish once.

The result will be the equivalent of time-lapse cinematography, allowing astronomers to track the motion of billions of objects and watch as galaxies collide and stars are born and die.

"It will be the greatest color movie of all time," Ivezic said.

With its ability to detect faint objects and peer into the far reaches of the universe, LSST was designed to tackle some of astronomy's greatest challenges, said Stanford University physicist Steven Kahn, director of the LSST project.

On the practical side, the telescope will be able to keep an eye on many more asteroids than any other survey method, and it could provide the first warning of objects on a collision course with Earth.

LSST will also look beyond the orbit of Neptune for more distant planets and search for clues to the solar system's formation.

Kahn is most excited about the chance to tackle fundamental cosmological mysteries, like the nature of so-called .

The 2011 Nobel Prize in physics was awarded to three scientists who analyzed signals from distant, exploding stars called supernovae, and reached the astonishing conclusion that the universe is expanding at an ever-faster rate, not slowing down as was expected. That discovery upended many notions about how the universe works and raised questions, foremost among them: What's driving the acceleration? Astrophysicists hypothesized there must be a "repulsive" force at work in space, which they call dark energy.

"We really have no idea what it is," Kahn said.

LSST will bring the power of big data to bear on the problem.

The original observation was based on 42 supernovae, gleaned from three years of observation with the Hubble Space Telescope. LSST is expected to detect 250,000 supernovae every year, Kahn said.

By analyzing all those signals, scientists will be able to test various theories that could explain the acceleration and, perhaps, identify the winner.

"It's capable of yielding a Nobel Prize," Ivezic said.

The amount of information flowing from LSST will be so vast that astronomers have mounted an initiative, based at the UW, to figure out the best way to process and make sense of it.

"This is changing the way we do science," said UW astronomer Andrew Connolly, who is leading the initiative. "The software is as critical to the science as the telescopes and cameras we build," Connolly said in a TED talk about LSST that has been viewed more than a million times.

Many of the new jobs at LSST focus on data analysis. Over the next two years the project aims to hire as many as 50 scientists and engineers, Ivezic said.

The telescope, a public-private partnership, is being jointly funded by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy.

When it's in full operation - probably by 2021 - all the data and images will be shared with the public. Anyone with a computer will be able to see it.

Schoolchildren tracking a quadrant of the sky could be the first to see a supernova explode, Kahn said.

"There's tremendous opportunity for the public to not only learn about science but participate," he said. "LSST will be a direct connection with the fact that the universe is alive and evolving and constantly changing."

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18 comments

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Osiris1
1.6 / 5 (10) Jan 11, 2015
Love this project. Since privately funded, maybe superliminal signatures will not be covered up.
Uncle Ira
4.6 / 5 (20) Jan 11, 2015
Love this project. Since privately funded, maybe superliminal signatures will not be covered up.


You must not have read the article Skippy. Dept of Energy, University of Washington and National Science Foundation don't sound like privately funded to me. Simonyi-Skippy and Gates-Skippy are putting 30 million between both of them, but it says the total cost of it is going to be 700 million, so it sounds like to me that it's about as privately funded as most things this big are.

Sorry Cher, hate to dash your hopes. Looks like the covering up stuffs is going to be about the same as always.
Whydening Gyre
4.4 / 5 (7) Jan 11, 2015
Love this project. Since privately funded, maybe superliminal signatures will not be covered up.


You must not have read the article Skippy. Dept of Energy, University of Washington and National Science Foundation don't sound like privately funded to me. Simonyi-Skippy and Gates-Skippy are putting 30 million between both of them, but it says the total cost of it is going to be 700 million, so it sounds like to me that it's about as privately funded as most things this big are.

Sorry Cher, hate to dash your hopes. Looks like the covering up stuffs is going to be about the same as always.

Sorry, Ira. Meant to five ya but hit 4 instead...
Uncle Ira
3.7 / 5 (9) Jan 11, 2015
@ Whydening-Skippy. Non the problems for me. If I was Really-Skippy or Bennie-Skippy it would bug me. All is good in Ira-Skippy's little piece of the world.
TechnoCreed
5 / 5 (8) Jan 11, 2015
The effort to build the LSST is a partnership between public and private organizations. Financial support for LSST Design and Development comes from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and private funding raised by the LSST Corporation, a non-profit 501(c)3 corporation formed in 2003, with headquarters in Tucson, AZ. Contributions from private foundation gifts, grants to universities, and in kind support from laboratories and other LSST Member Institutions were key to early construction and critical developments. The LSST Project Office for central management was established as an operating center under management of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA). The Department of Energy funded effort is managed by the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory (SLAC).
DoE... Yep definitely public... Right again Ira, look at the small prints at the end of this link: http://lsst.org/l.../members
Whydening Gyre
5 / 5 (6) Jan 11, 2015
This is a sister piece to the article about the 3.2gigapixel camera...
And I only see ONE private corporation name in the list...
pwschneider
3 / 5 (1) Jan 12, 2015
"the telescope's 20-ton mirror assembly, which includes the largest [ convex ] mirror" ?
That's a misprint right?
TimLong2001
1 / 5 (2) Jan 12, 2015
It would be advisable to consider alternate theories as to the cause of the background red shift.
TechnoCreed
5 / 5 (5) Jan 12, 2015
"the telescope's 20-ton mirror assembly, which includes the largest [ convex ] mirror" ?
That's a misprint right?

This is an artistic representation of the mirror assembly: https://webfiles....cs-2.jpg https://webfiles....cs-3.jpg The convex mirror that is talked about in this article is the secondary mirror(at the top). The 3.2 billion pixel camera is the object situated right under this secondary lens.
rogerchinnici
1 / 5 (10) Jan 12, 2015
Another H-U-G-E price-tag for something that does nothing but give the elitists a better look at a place they will never get to in 100 lifetimes. "To infinity & beyond"...you say? "Bunk"..I say. Get this rock we live on in the here and now functioning properly and then maybe...MAYBE...look billions of light years away for nebulous answers. Until then...the money can be better spent elsewhere.
Plep
1.2 / 5 (6) Jan 12, 2015
The 2011 Nobel Prize in physics was awarded to three scientists who analyzed signals from distant, exploding stars called supernovae, and reached the astonishing conclusion that the universe is expanding at an ever-faster rate, not slowing down as was expected.

They made these observations by light that took billions of years to get here to us. It is an accurate statement of fact what was happening billions of years ago, but you cannot conclude that is what is happening today. We could be in the Big Crunch right now, and seems to be a more likely explanation than inventing dark energy that doesn't exist.
TechnoCreed
5 / 5 (9) Jan 12, 2015
Another H-U-G-E price-tag for something that does nothing but give the elitists a better look at a place they will never get to in 100 lifetimes.
You have the right not to care about the science but, this instrument also gives us a unique ability to view and follow potentially hazardous asteroids. If this instrument would have been functional last year, the Tcheliabinsk area would have been evacuated before the asteroid hit. http://www.lsst.o...lic/neo1 Let Andrew Connoly an astronomer from the University of Washington entertain you about this soon to be functional technological marvel https://www.ted.c...universe
IronhorseA
1 / 5 (3) Jan 12, 2015
Another H-U-G-E price-tag for something that does nothing but give the elitists a better look at a place they will never get to in 100 lifetimes. "To infinity & beyond"...you say? "Bunk"..I say. Get this rock we live on in the here and now functioning properly and then maybe...MAYBE...look billions of light years away for nebulous answers. Until then...the money can be better spent elsewhere.


It will never work properly. Prisons never do.
IMP-9
4.3 / 5 (6) Jan 12, 2015
They made these observations by light that took billions of years to get here to us. It is an accurate statement of fact what was happening billions of years ago


No, it's a geometric measurement. Measuring the space in between not the universe at the time of the supernova, but over all time since the supernova.
vincepage
not rated yet Jan 13, 2015
Does anyone know what the LSST will do that the Gaia telescope will not?
Whydening Gyre
5 / 5 (3) Jan 13, 2015
You have the right not to care about the science but, this instrument also gives us a unique ability to view and follow potentially hazardous asteroids. If this instrument would have been functional last year, the Tcheliabinsk area would have been evacuated before the asteroid hit. http://www.lsst.o...ic/neo1.


That TED vid was great, btw...
Whydening Gyre
5 / 5 (3) Jan 13, 2015
Does anyone know what the LSST will do that the Gaia telescope will not?

More or less the same thing, but orders of magnitude faster and bigger...
TechnoCreed
5 / 5 (2) Jan 14, 2015
Does anyone know what the LSST will do that the Gaia telescope will not?

More or less the same thing, but orders of magnitude faster and bigger...
I hope that you do not take it bad but I cannot hold it back. That was a lazy answer to a lazy question: You are saying that a satellite mainly designed to create a precise 3D map of the Milky Way and an equipment whose purpose is to create a dynamic view of the southern sky are the same.

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