Aug232010

Mason Partners with Top Telescope Project to Create “Movie” of the Entire Sky

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By Tara Laskowski

The stars aligned properly this month for Mason’s latest scientific partnership.

The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), a research project that Mason recently signed on to, was listed by the National Academy of Sciences as one of the most important astronomical endeavors for the next decade.

Photo courtesy of LSST Corporation

The telescope, which researchers hope will be built and on-line by the end of the decade, will create a 10-year-long “movie” of the section of sky visible from its perch atop a mountain in Chile. It will survey the sky deeply every three days using its three-billion-pixel digital camera — the largest in the world — to probe astronomical mysteries, such as dark matter and dark energy, in order to map the dynamic, changing universe.

It will also be able to track the faintest objects in the universe, such as the millions of small asteroids in our solar system, supernovae in the most distant galaxies and any other objects that change their brightness or position in the sky.

Mason’s role in the LSST project will involve designing the data-mining techniques that will sift through the massive amounts of data gathered and analyzed by the telescope, which amounts to 30 terabytes of information every night. Kirk Borne, associate professor of astrophysics and computational sciences at Mason, will be the liaison for the project and serve on the LSST board of advisors.

Mason professors in various disciplines such as astronomy and physics, computational sciences and science education — some already doing LSST-related research — will contribute to and benefit from this partnership.

Borne is also leading a nationwide scientific collaboration group that will conduct data science research with the LSST data repository, which will be one of the largest scientific databases ever assembled. The LSST data archive will consist of nearly 100 petabytes of data, roughly equivalent to 100 times all of the words printed in all of the books in all of the libraries in the world, Borne says.

“The LSST project team will provide open, public access to all of these data — it will be the telescope for everyone,” says Borne. “The scientific knowledge discovery potential of the LSST database is staggering, and the data-mining techniques developed by our Mason scientists will enable countless new astronomical discoveries.”

Another major component of the LSST project will be its far-reaching educational initiatives. Researchers at Mason will work closely with LSST on developing projects, online activities and media-rich experiences devoted to educating the general public about the telescope and its scientific activities. With projects already in place at Mason such as the Galaxy Zoo, which invites “citizen scientists” to contribute in real science research, Mason is poised to make a serious contribution to changing the way people learn and engage with science.

“People love the prospect of doing real science and being a valuable part of data collecting,” says Borne. “Perhaps some student doing a science fair project or an interested citizen using a smart phone application will help us to find the next big thing in astronomy.”

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