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January 8, 2008

Purdue part of project to create telescope of astronomical proportions

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Purdue University physicists and computer scientists are part of a national project to create the most powerful telescope ever constructed.

The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope will capture a 10-square-degree field of view - 3,100 times larger than the Hubble Space Telescope's - and will include the largest digital camera ever constructed with 3,200-megapixels.

Ian Shipsey, the Julian Schwinger Distinguished Professor of Physics and Purdue's representative on the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) board of directors, said the telescope will have an enormous impact on a wide range of questions in astronomy and physics.

"In just its first week of operation, LSST will survey a volume of the universe larger than all previous telescopes combined," said Shipsey, who also is a member of the project's camera construction team. "Over 10 years it will continuously search the universe for change and evolution, making an unprecedented 3-D movie of the universe - the greatest movie ever. We are excited about the enormous discovery potential LSST will provide for Purdue scientists."

During 10 years of data collection scheduled to begin in 2014, the 25-foot diameter telescope is expected to take about 2,000 deep exposures for every part of the sky over 20,000 square degrees. This color "movie" of the universe will, for the first time, open a window into the time domain, capturing important information about objects that change or move. The data generated will allow scientists to probe the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy, Shipsey said.

On Jan. 3, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope partnership announced a $20 million gift from the Charles Simonyi Fund for Arts and Sciences and $10 million from Microsoft founder Bill Gates. It is estimated that $389 million will be needed for the telescope's construction.

Purdue has been a member of the project since April. To date, the corporation has 23 institutional members that include universities, research labs and private corporations. In addition to Shipsey, associate professor Wei Cui, professor John Finley, and assistant professor John Peterson in the Department of Physics; and professor Christoph Hoffmann and associate professor Voicu Popescu in the Department of Computer Science, are active in the development of the project.

Hoffmann, who also is director of Purdue's Rosen Center for Advanced Computing, said the telescope will produce 30 terabytes of data per night that dedicated data facilities will process in real time.

"LSST will catalog 10 billion galaxies and 10 billion stars, creating 60 petabytes of astronomical image data, which is equivalent to 100 million CDs, and a 30-petabyte database," he said. "Analyzing this data in real time and making it available to the public is an enormous computing challenge."

Peterson, who is leading Large Synoptic Survey Telescope computer simulations at Purdue, said the telescope will provide three-dimensional maps of the mass distribution of the universe.

"In addition to the usual images of stars and galaxies, LSST will provide a 3-D map of the dark matter distribution in the universe," he said. "These dark matter maps can be used to better understand the nature of the newly discovered and completely mysterious dark energy that is apparently accelerating the universe. The LSST also will find most of the potentially hazardous asteroids that pose a danger of a catastrophic impact with the Earth."

The telescope will be constructed on Cerro Pachon, a mountain in northern Chile. Its design of three large mirrors and three refractive lenses in a camera leads to a large field of view with excellent image quality.

The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope is a public-private partnership that has been under development since 2000. The recent gifts enable the construction of the telescope's three large mirrors, which are expected to take more than five years to manufacture. The first stages of production for the two largest mirrors are now beginning at the Mirror Laboratory at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Other key elements of the system also will be aided by the gift.

Project director J. Anthony Tyson said, "This support from Charles Simonyi and Bill Gates will lead to a transformation in the way we study the universe. By mapping the visible sky deeply and rapidly, the LSST will let everyone experience a novel view of our universe and permit exciting new questions in a variety of areas of astronomy and fundamental physics."

The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope is designed to be a public facility. The database and resulting catalogs will be made available to the community at large with no proprietary restrictions. A sophisticated data-management system will provide easy access to enable simple queries from individual professional and amateur users, as well as computationally intensive scientific investigations that utilize the entire database.

More information about the project is available online at http://www.lsst.org.

Writer: Elizabeth Gardner, (765) 494-2081, ekgardner@purdue.edu

Sources: Ian Shipsey, (765) 494-5049, shipsey@purdue.edu

Christoph Hoffmann, (765) 494-6185, cmh@cs.purdue.edu

John Peterson, (765) 494-5193, peters11@purdue.edu

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; purduenews@purdue.edu

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