Within a decade, more of the universe’s mysteries and dangers may become clearer — thanks to a giant telescope Penn State is helping to build.
The U.S. National Science Foundation and Department of Energy recently approved the construction of a $678 million telescope, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, of which Penn State is a member institution.
In planning since 2005, the LSST is a major national project that was ranked as the top priority for ground-based astronomy, as opposed to satellites, in the 2010 National Decadal Survey for Astronomy.
“The LSST data will provide an unprecedented view of the universe, and will allow investigation of important questions ranging from charting unknown objects in our own solar system, to the large-scale structure of the universe, to the mysterious nature of dark energy and dark matter,” said Lawrence Ramsey, a member of the LSST board of directors, a Penn State professor of astronomy and astrophysics and an Eberly College of Science distinguished senior scholar, in a Penn State news release.
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The initial design and development of the LSST was supported by the LSST Corp., a nonprofit consortium of universities and other research institutions, including Penn State. Construction of the major mirror components, funded privately, already has started.
Although the project is now approved, the telescope is not expected to be done until 2019. Full science operations are slated to begin three years later.
The interim will allow computers time to develop sufficiently in order to manage the immense amount of data the LSST will produce, according to Niel Brandt, Verne M. Willaman professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State, chairman of the LSST’s Active Galactic Nuclei Science Collaboration and chairman of the LSST Deep Drilling Interest Group.
“It’s going to be a huge, interesting technical challenge,” Brandt said. “The LSST will generate 20 terabytes of data per night and the entire archive is going to be several hundred petabytes. To put that in perspective, the typical computer typically has about one terabyte, if you get a nice one.”
When fully developed, the telescope will be located in Chile. There it will view the entire visible sky every three days, using a 27-foot mirror and a camera the size of a small car.
“The multiple images of a field, taken with such a powerful telescope, will enable astronomers to investigate an enormous range of questions,” said Donald Schneider, distinguished professor and head of Penn State’s department of astronomy and astrophysics.
The sheer size of the telescope alone is impressive, but even more remarkable is what can be done with the technology. The camera will identify and track asteroids and comets with orbits that indicate they could collide with Earth, in the hopes of providing early and accurate enough information to avoid a catastrophe.
“If the asteroids are identified decades before the impact, it should be feasible to slightly alter their orbit to avoid the collision,” Schneider said. “Efforts are currently underway to identify these dangerous objects, but the LSST will be by far the most effective instrument for this purpose.”