Thursday, August 30, 2007

A Gigapixel Camera for NEO's

Although booth duty at SPIE hasn't allowed me to attend many papers, I'm learning some cool astronomy stuff from some of my fellow exhibitors. One booth is dedicated to promoting optically related industry and research in Hawaii, where of course there are a number of world-class telescopes and related projects.

One of the projects I learned about today is the University of Hawaii's Pan-STARRS (Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System), which is a wide-field imaging system that will use small telescopes and large digital cameras to provide rapid, frequent, and detailed surveys of the sky. Among other things, this will allow it to spot and monitor many NEO's (near Earth objects such as asteroids and comets). A single 1.8 m telescope PS1 prototype system is already installed on Haleakala, Maui, and their first 1.4 gigapixel camera is nearly complete (it may already be installed in the PS1, scheduled for August according to the web site). The operational Pan-STARRS system will use four telescopes and four of these huge gigapixel cameras, producing terabytes of sky data every night as it surveys the 70% of the sky visible from Hawaii. Processing and storage of this huge stream of imagery is an enormous software and data storage challenge that will also have to be solved over the next few years.

What's the payoff? An eye on the sky that will give us a better chance of detecting a killer asteroid with Earth's name on it. This is certainly an important project for the Earth's long term safety. It will also produce sky surveys that will have great scientific value for detection and monitoring of galaxies, quasars, and stars to very faint magnitudes. According to the data sheet I picked up, Pan-STARRS will reach 24th magnitude in a 30 second exposure, allowing it to detect asteroids 300 meters in diameter at a distance of 1 AU (the average Sun-Earth distance, about 149 million kilometers).

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