Space & Innovation

Billions of Stars and Galaxies to Be Discovered in the Largest Cosmic Map Ever

The Pan-STARRS telescope in Hawaii spent four years scanning the skies to produce two petabytes of publicly-available data. Now it's up to us to study it.

<p>Rob Ratkowski/UH/IfA</p>

Need precision observations of a nearby star? Want to measure the light-years to a distant galaxy? Or do you just want to stare into the deep unknown and discover something no one has ever seen before? No problem! The Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) has got you covered after releasing the biggest digital sky survey ever carried out to the world.

"The Pan-STARRS1 Surveys allow anyone to access millions of images and use the database and catalogs containing precision measurements of billions of stars and galaxies," said Ken Chambers, Director of the Pan-STARRS Observatories, in a statement. "Pan-STARRS has made discoveries from Near Earth Objects and Kuiper Belt Objects in the Solar System to lonely planets between the stars; it has mapped the dust in three dimensions in our galaxy and found new streams of stars; and it has found new kinds of exploding stars and distant quasars in the early universe."

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The Pan-STARRS project is managed by the University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy (IfA) and the vast database is now available by the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Md. To say this survey is "big" is actually a disservice to just how gargantuan a data management task it is. According the IfA, the entire survey takes up two petabytes of data, which, as the university playfully puts it, "is equivalent to one billion selfies, or one hundred times the total content of Wikipedia."

Three billion astronomical sources are in this photo. What discoveries await? Credit: Danny Farrow, Pan-STARRS1 Science Consortium and Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics

This heady task was completed by just one telescope atop Haleakalā, on Maui, which scanned the visible and near-infrared sky from 2010 to 2014.

"Pan-STARRS is a relatively small telescope when compared with the big ones we have on Mauna Kea ... but it has the biggest astronomical camera in the world; one and a half billion pixels in the camera compared with the 10 million in your typical digital camera at home," said astronomer Eugene Magnier, of the University of Hawaii. If they had printed the survey in one giant photograph, Magnier added, the photo would be one and a half miles long.

The sheer detail captured in the survey, and the fact that the entire database has been made available online, means that it will be used for many years to come by professional and amateur astronomers to make discoveries about the cosmos.

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"It's a census of the universe and the sorts of things people will learn by digging into the details of that census will be enormous," said Kenneth Chambers, also an astronomer at the University of Hawaii.

The researchers estimate there to be three billion astronomical sources in the vast cosmic map, so with this release will likely come a slew of new science.

The survey is supported by NASA and the National Science Foundation, with collaborations across 10 research institutions in four countries, and public access to all of the precious data has been made possible through the Space Telescope Science Institute, which has many years of experience with storing and managing huge quantities of astronomical data for the Hubble Space Telescope and other projects.

So what are you waiting for? An entire universe awaits.