Searching for Killer Asteroids in Hawaii
|The PS1 Observatory on Haleakala,
Maui just before sunrise.
|Rob Ratkowski / UH|
The world became a slightly safer place on May 13, when the Pan-STARRS 1 (PS1) telescope in Hawaii started surveying the sky for killer asteroids.
This 1.8 meter (60-inch) diameter telescope on Haleakala is designed to automatically search the skies for objects that either move or change their brightness from night to night. It contains the world’s largest digital camera, with 1,400 megapixels.
“Although modest in size, this telescope is on the cutting edge of technology,” said Dr. Nick Kaiser, head of the Pan-STARRS project. “It can image a patch of sky about 40 times the area of the full moon, much larger than any similar-sized telescope on Earth or in space.”
Designed and built by astronomers and engineers of the Pan-STARRS project at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, PS1 has now been turned over to the PS1 Science Consortium, a group of ten institutions, including UH Manoa, in the United States, Germany, United Kingdom, and Taiwan that are funding the PS1 Science Mission.
The giant digital camera will take over 500 exposures each night and send about four terabytes of data (equivalent to what 1,000 DVDs can hold) to the Maui High Performance Computing Center for analysis. Computers will rapidly compare each exposure with corresponding ones taken either a few minutes or a few days earlier to find objects that have moved or whose brightness has changed.
In the next three years, PS1 is expected to discover about 100,000 asteroids and to determine if any of them are on a collision course with Earth. It will catalog five billion stars and 500 million galaxies.
PS1 will also be used to compile the most comprehensive digital map of the 75 percent of the universe visible from Hawaii.
UH astronomers will use the data to search for killer asteroids, to find brown dwarfs and distant quasars, to watch supernova explosions in distant galaxies, and to test their latest theories concerning dark matter and dark energy.
PS1 is the experimental prototype for the larger PS4 telescope, which will have four times the power of PS1 and is planned for Mauna Kea.
The PS1 surveys have been made possible through contributions of the PS1 Science Consortium: the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy; the Pan-STARRS Project Office; the Max-Planck Society and its participating institutes, the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, Heidelberg, Germany and the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, Garching, Germany; the Johns Hopkins University; the University of Durham; the University of Edinburgh; the Queen’s University Belfast; the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network, Inc.; and the National Central University of Taiwan. Funding for Pan-STARRS (short for Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System) has been provided by the U.S. Air Force.
Founded in 1967, the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii at Manoa conducts research into galaxies, cosmology, stars, planets, and the sun. Its faculty and staff are also involved in astronomy education, deep space missions, and in the development and management of the observatories on Haleakala and Mauna Kea.
Established in 1907 and fully accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, the University of Hawaii is the state’s sole public system of higher education. The UH System provides an array of undergraduate, graduate, and professional degrees and community programs on 10 campuses and through educational, training, and research centers across the state. UH enrolls more than 50,000 students from Hawaii, the U.S. mainland, and around the world.
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