A film of the heavens

Project to create a revolutionary map and first movie of the sky

This press release is also available in German.

The PanSTARRS1 Consortium will use data from the University of Hawaiiâ€TMs 1.8 metre PS1 telescope to discover billions of new stars, new planets, galaxies and solar system objects, including potential "killer asteroids" that threaten the Earth. It will also produce the most extensive 3-dimensional map of the Universe ever made.

The consortium that will assemble and interpret these maps includes the two institutes of the Max Planck Society in Germany, the University of Hawaii, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the Johns Hopkins University in the USA, plus a group of Universities in the United Kingdom. Together, the consortium will contribute the hardware, software for the telescope and data pipeline, and the cost of operating the survey in Hawaii for 3.5 years.

The telescope, which has a 71-inch diameter mirror, achieved "First Light" in June this year. It is currently undergoing engineering tests and will become fully operational in 2007. It will soon be equipped with the world's largest digital camera, under construction at the UH Institute for Astronomy's Manoa headquarters. The camera will have 1.4 billion pixels - about 300 times as many as a typical commercial digital camera, and its field of view will be 7 square degrees large. This extremely large field of view, high sensitivity of the detectors and overall optical quality of the system will allow repeated fast coverage of the entire sky observable from Hawaii.

As a consequence of this breakthrough in the size of the field of view and digital detector, an enormous data flow of several terabytes per night will be collected; therefore new solutions for data handling, evaluation and storage have to be developed.

The resulting images, once put together as a map and monitoring "movie" of the sky provide a treasure trove of information and a long-lasting legacy archive for a wide range of astrophysical research, which will become available to the world-wide community after completion of the project.

Based on these data, researchers at the two Max Planck Institutes will lead a number of central key science projects:

  • the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg will lead the search for extra-solar planets. The PS1 survey, with its repeated imaging of the same parts of the sky, i.e. its movie mode, could lead to the discovery of 100 planets like Jupiter using the transit method, in which the central star is briefly obscured by the dark planet transiting in front of it.

  • the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy will also lead the construction of an unprecedented 3-dimensional map of our own Milky Way and its surrounding, so as to better understand how our "galactic home" came into existence

  • the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics will lead a research project on the nature of Dark Energy using the evolution of the large-scale distribution of massive galaxies. Dark Energy accelerates the expansion of the universe and its origin is possibly the most fundamental problem of modern physics.

Finally, the database generated by the entire PanSTARRS1 survey will provide a large variety of input objects for follow-up studies more powerful telescopes, like the ESO Very Large Telescope in Chile or the Large Binocular Telescope in Arizona.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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