Every family has a shutterbug, the relative who shows up at events with at least two cameras in hand, who preserves the priceless memories, and then ends up posting the least flattering pictures to your Facebook page.
The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), which the National Science Board recently approved to advance to its final design stage, will bring extreme picture taking to an entirely new level. The images the LSST captures will be of much higher quality than shutterbugs can take with a typical digital camera, and far from generating personal embarrassment, these images will generate immense scientific benefit.
Planned as a partnership project between the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Energy Department, and a number of private donors, the LSST is a proposed 8.4 meter (about 27.5 feet) wide-field telescope that will be located in Chile and will shoot pictures of the entire Southern sky about twice a week. That’s the equivalent of taking roughly 800,000 pictures a night, or 80,000 pictures every hour for a 10-hour night, according to the team at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory leading the camera design.
The telescope’s digital camera will be the largest in the world, capturing some 3.2 billion pixels per frame. The camera will gather so much data -- some 15 terabytes per night -- that supercomputers will be needed to process and analyze all that it sees, from inside the solar system to the far reaches of space.
SLAC describes LSST as the “widest, fastest, and deepest” eye of the new digital age.” When completed -- construction is expected to begin in 2014 and take about five years -- the telescope’s unprecedented window on the sky will reveal objects and forces near and far.
The LSST will be able to distinguish more of the stuff in our solar system such as potentially hazardous near-earth asteroids and the icy objects of the Kuiper Belt. It will create a much more detailed map of the Milky Way. And it will map more distant objects, such as suddenly exploding stars (supernovae) and the seemingly slow steps of billions of far-flung galaxies across the sky.
In marking those objects and charting them as they move and change, the LSST will shed light on even darker mysteries: dark matter and dark energy. Thought to make up about 70 percent of all the matter in the universe, dark matter seems to be what’s holding everything together, yet scientists remain largely in the dark on its actual substance. Meanwhile, dark energy appears to be pushing everything apart, accelerating the expansion of the universe, but scientists still don’t know what it actually is.
They’ll get closer to those answers thanks to the LSST. By seeing our sky with sharper eyes, we’ll better understand our unique place in space, our responsibilities, and our possibilities. We’re proud to be playing a part in developing the LSST, an extreme sky shutterbug that will take priceless images and generate countless scientific smiles.