Johns Hopkins is joining eight other institutions
worldwide to utilize a revolutionary new telescope, funded
by the U.S. Air Force to detect asteroids and comets on
collision course with Earth, but also capable of
discovering unprecedented numbers of important, dynamic
astronomical objects such as eclipsing planets and
dark-energy measuring supernovae.
Located at the Haleakala High Altitude Observatory
Site on the island of Maui in Hawaii, the
Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System
— called Pan-STARRS — will use the world's
largest digital camera to produce what is expected to be
the most detailed three-dimensional map of the universe
The consortium's more than 30 scientists — from
Johns Hopkins, the University of Hawaii, Harvard
University, Max Planck Institutes for Astronomy and for
Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany, Las Cumbres
Observatory, Durham University, University of Edinburgh and
Queen's University Belfast — also will use the
telescope to study everything from comets to the exploding
stars called supernovae.
"Pan-STARRS will soon be an exceptionally important
observatory that will produce stunning new views of the
heavens of great significance to many unsolved mysteries of
astrophysics," said Johns Hopkins astrophysicist Charles L.
When fully operational, Pan-STARRS will be able to
rapidly and thoroughly scan vast areas of the sky, allowing
researchers to take images of areas about 30 to 40 times
the size of the full moon in a single exposure. The
telescope is capable of surveying several times each month
the entire sky visible from Hawaii. That capability will
help astronomers trying to determine the nature of
so-called "dark energy," which drives the accelerating
expansion of the universe.
Johns Hopkins astrophysicist Adam Riess, who, like
Bennett, is a key player in international efforts to
determine what dark energy actually is, said, "This
super-fast telescope will measure a hundred times more dark
energy-tracing supernovae than has ever been possible
previously. Pan-STARRS will provide the next generation
improvement in understanding dark energy, which is arguably
the biggest question in physics."
By opening the window on minute changes in the
universe, Pan-STARRS also will discover scores of new
planets orbiting other stars, said Holland Ford, another
Johns Hopkins astrophysicist involved in the project.
"Pan-STARRS will enable us to search millions of stars
for planets every night by looking for the slight dimming
of the star when one of its planets passes between us and
the star," Ford said. "The odds of observing a planet
passing in front of any particular star are like the odds
of winning the Maryland Lottery. However, because
Pan-STARRS buys millions of lottery tickets every night by
observing millions of stars, we should be able to find
about 100 new extra-solar planetary systems over the life
of the project. This, in turn, will greatly increase our
understanding of whether or not there are Earthlike planets
around other stars."
Over the next three and a half years, researchers
throughout the multi-institution consortium will dedicate
themselves to analyzing the unprecedented flood of data
that they expect to come from the telescope.
Johns Hopkins astrophysicist Alexander Szalay, known
for his expertise in mining discoveries from huge
databases, said, "Pan-STARRS will be the first survey in
astronomy that will produce data surpassing 1 petabyte, or
1 million gigabytes, which equals about 1.5 million CDs.
Our group at Johns Hopkins has played a pioneering role in
analyzing very large data sets with the Sloan Digital Sky
Survey; our participation in Pan-STARRS will provide an
enormous challenge, but also an incredible opportunity, to
continue in this direction."
The Pan-STARRS telescope has been developed by
astronomers at the University of Hawaii. It is the
brainchild of Nick Kaiser of the University of Hawaii's
Institute for Astronomy. His colleague John Tonry designed
and built the telescope's Gigapixel camera. Ken Chambers of
the University of Hawaii, who received his doctorate from
Johns Hopkins' Department of Physics and Astronomy, is the
Pan-STARRS project scientist.
The telescope, which has a 71-inch-diameter mirror,
achieved "first light" in June this year. It currently is
undergoing engineering tests and is expected to become
fully operational in 2007.