What do the universe, open source software, a 12,000-core supercomputer, a cool $2.5 million of high-grade silicon and one of the country’s largest data sets have in common? They all underpin a five-year Australian initiative to map and study the observable universe from the southern hemisphere.
The story begins back in 2003 when the Great Melbourne Telescope was destroyed during the bush fires of January that year.
From the ashes rose the SkyMapper observatory, based in the Siding Spring Observatory at the safer central-west NSW location of Coonabarabran and tasked with scanning the night skies to create the Southern Sky Survey.
A deep digital map of the southern sky, the Southern Sky Survey -- with a little help from the National Computational Infrastructure (NCI) National Facility -- will allow astronomers to study interstellar objects ranging from nearby asteroids to super-distant objects like quasars.
The data from SkyMapper will also be shared globally via the Virtual Observatory initiative, to allow astronomers all over the world to explore its every possibility. Experts say this advance heralds the arrival of a new era in astronomy -- one where researchers can draw on freely available online data about the universe instead of having to wait months, or even years, for a chance to observe the night sky through a billion-dollar physical telescope.
(Check out CIO's SkyMapper slideshow here.)
Southern Sky Survey
According to Stefan Keller, SkyMapper scientist and research fellow at the Australian National University’s Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics, the underlying idea -- and significance of the survey -- is that it will form the first digital, optical map of the southern skies.
Mapping about a billion objects, the survey will provide a fundamental resource for future astronomical studies in the near and distant universe.
“The southern sky has traditionally not been as observed as the northern sky, as there are fewer people, so there is the potential to find objects the size of Pluto drifting around out there [in our solar system] and as yet unseen,” Keller says.
Through particular attention to the use of different coloured glass filters in SkyMapper’s 268 megapixel camera, astronomers will be able to focus on particular parts of the stellar spectrum to help decipher the heat, density and chemical abundances of stars.
At the far edge of the optically observable universe, SkyMapper will also be able to pick up things such as ‘high red-shift’ quasi-stellar objects (QSOs), Keller says.
“Here we have galaxies powered by central black holes,” he says. “As they consume material they spit out jets of material and create a lot of light. Those objects form very valuable probes through the murk between us and them, and in that way we can determine what the material is along that line of site.”
“SkyMapper is really about finding the needles in the haystacks -- the incredibly rare objects. That’s really the power of SkyMapper; by drawing in that many objects you can spot all the oddball ones.”
SkyMapper is also notable for the speed and breadth at which it can take images -- about 1000 degrees of space a night, according to Keller; about 20 times the amount of data available through any other observatory in the southern hemisphere.
Unsurprisingly, the Southern Sky Survey will result in a large volume of raw data -- about 470 terabytes, or about 100,000 DVDs worth -- when complete, according to Keller.
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