Wednesday, December 18, 2013

National Optical Astronomical Observatory (NOAO): App to review Large Synoptic Survey Telescope Data

The Large Magellanic Cloud, an irregular galaxy, is visible in the night sky over the Earth's Southern Hemisphere and may contain hidden astronomical wonders yet to be revealed in the images collected by the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST)

Credit: NASA)

University of Arizona computer scientists are teaming up with astronomers at the National Optical Astronomical Observatory (NOAO) to develop a computer program that will sort through the millions of objects detected by the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) and create a list of priorities for astronomers to investigate.

The project has recently received a three-year INSPIRE grant, worth more than $700,000, from the National Science Foundation.

"The University of Arizona and NOAO were among the original founding members of the LSST project, making our collaboration to help ensure its success especially appropriate," said Tom Matheson, an associate astronomer at the Tucson-based NOAO.

High in the Andean peaks of Chile, work is underway to build a telescope that will photograph the entire Southern Hemisphere of the sky every three nights for 10 years.

The LSST will create a map of the sky unlike any other, showing changes in astronomical objects almost as they happen over the 10-year period, and opening a floodgate for new astronomical discoveries and research worldwide as new objects are detected each night.

Located in the foothills of the Andes Mountains in Chile, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope will photograph the entire Southern Hemisphere of the sky every three days for ten years beginning in 2022. 

Credit: Suzanne Jacoby /LSST Project Office

Photographing a portion of the southern sky every 37 seconds each night, the LSST will compile a database of approximately a thousand images per night.

"We can take the picture from one night and subtract it from the picture from three nights before. Everything that has changed will show up in the image, so we can study how the sky varies," Matheson said.

"What we'll get is essentially a movie of the entire southern sky. At the end of the 10 years we can add up all the images and get a really deep picture of objects over the entire southern sky. It's a really fantastic science resource for astronomy," he added.

"It's also a huge amount of data," Matheson said. "In any one of those frames there will be about 10,000 things that change, so that's 10 million objects per night that have changed and we're going to have to figure out what of those is astronomically interesting."

While other astronomy projects are underway around the world to conduct similar surveys, none has ever attempted to map the sky on a scale such as this.

The problem: How to compare between 1 million and 10 million astronomical objects spotted each night by the LSST to the catalog of known objects, prioritize them based upon different factors, and generate a list of most important objects upon which astronomers around the world may train their telescopes.

The team: Matheson, UA associate professor of computer science and member of the UA BIO5 Institute, John Kececioglu, UA professor of computer science, Rick Snodgrass, UA professor of computer science, and NOAO astronomer Abhijit Saha.

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