Thursday, August 19, 2010

Astronomers try to greenlight LSST... again

Among the multi-billion dollar wish list astronomers released last week in their sixth decadal survey, was $421-million for the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, marking the second time the scientific community has established the instrument as a priority. While the telescope's primary mirror is a relatively large 8.4 meters, it's not so much the size that matters here. What's different about the LSST is its exceptionally wide field of view -- seven times larger than the diameter of the moon as seen from earth.

That broad view will allow it to scan the entire night sky in the southern hemisphere every 72 hours -- creating 30 terabytes of data per night -- from its perch high in the foothills of the Andes. Astronomers say it could help to unravel the mysteries of dark energy, dark matter, time-variable phenomena, supernovas and even asteroids. To help process this enormous amount of data, the LSST has partnered with Google, which plans to make much of the data easily accessible to the public and use it to create an up-to-date map of the night sky.

Pulling straight from the report:

-New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics

"Over a 10-year lifetime, LSST will be a unique facility that, building on the success of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, will produce a 100 billion megabyte publicly accessible database. The project is relatively mature in its design... The committee recommends that LSST be submitted immediately for NSF’s Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction (MREFC) consideration with a view to achieving first light before the end of the decade."


Astronomers have proposed that the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy split most of the bill, with tens of millions more coming from philanthropists like Bill Gates and Charles Simonyi. If my tabulations are correct, when built it would be the most expensive telescope on Earth; coming in well over the cost of the Keck Observatory (~$188 million), the Gran Telescopio Canarias (~$175 million) and the Large Binocular Telescope ($120 million).

The above photo is of the LSST primary mirror spinning as it cools in the Steward Mirror Lab under the football stadium at the University of Arizona. It was taken by Alex Attanasio on a tour we were given in April 2008.

2 comments:

  1. Would it be more expensive than the European Extremely Large Telescope or Thirty Meter Telescope which I understand should both see first light in 2018?

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  2. Anonymous- I think all of those, as well as the Giant Magellan Telescope, would be substantially more expensive. However, none of them are scheduled to be completed until after the LSST's projected completion date.

    Of course, all of these dates are very tenuous and I suspect more than one of them will never see fruition. They're great ideas, but I've been told several times that there's only room for one telescope in those size ranges. I'll be highly interested to see which it is.

    On a side note, in the other room from the LSST mirror pictured above was the first mirror for the GMT.

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