New telescope moves closer to construction, will enable new discoveries

Saturday, Jul 21, 2012

Plans for a new telescope capable of surveying large swaths of the sky are moving forward with the approval Wednesday by the National Science Board, which oversees budget decisions at the National Science Foundation (NSF). This decision advances the project to final design stage and permits the NSF to include funds for the telescope's construction in budget requests to Congress.  

"This crucial step puts the LSST on track to expand our knowledge of the universe in ways that haven't been possible before," said Princeton University Dean for Research A. J. Stewart Smith, the Class of 1909 Professor of Physics. "We can now look forward to spectacular new discoveries by the end of the decade increasing our understanding of dark energy, dark matter and many other areas of astronomy and physics."

"This telescope will enable researchers to make the most detailed map ever of the sky," said Michael Strauss, professor of astrophysical sciences and chair of the LSST science advisory committee. "We will be able to explore everything from asteroids in our solar system to supernovae explosions in distant galaxies, as well as make discoveries about the fundamental nature of mysteries such as dark matter."

Princeton researchers are members of a scientific collaboration that will utilize the LSST, which will be built on a mountaintop in Chile. The site was chosen because it offers a large number of clear nights per year, it is far from city lights, and the air above the site is less turbulent, allowing for particularly sharp images of the sky.

The telescope will sweep the visible night sky, repeating the sweep every three days, while an attached camera takes pictures. The resulting images can be combined into a movie of how the objects in the universe change over time. This "celestial cinematography" could allow researchers to discover new types of exploding stars.

The images will be captured by a 3.2 billion pixel camera, capable of imaging the widest, fastest, and deepest views of the night sky. Princeton researchers, in collaboration with other institutions, are leading the development of the software that will analyze the petabytes of data that this camera will generate.  

"This is an incredibly exciting time because the LSST is a natural outgrowth of Princeton's previous work on surveying the universe," said Robert Lupton, senior research scientist at Princeton's Department of Astrophysical Sciences and leader of the effort to develop scientific algorithms to handle the LSST data, which will be generated at a rate of 375 megabytes per second. Princeton is a lead institution for the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which has scanned the night sky since 2000 using the Sloan telescope in New Mexico, and produced many important discoveries.

Like the Sloan survey, the LSST will make the data available to the research community and the public. For example, LSST images will be used to create online interactive night-sky maps provided by Google and others.

In addition, the data will enable exploration of dark matter, the unseen matter that is thought to make up about 23% of the universe and is detectable only through its gravity-inducing effects on stars, galaxies and other objects.

Construction could start as early as 2014 and is expected to last five years.