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Use Google To Search The Heavens

Google has joined the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) Project, which intends to complete the world's largest survey telescope by 2013. Google will work with nineteen universities and national labs that are designing and building the telescope.

The proposed telescope itself will be a ground-based 8.4 meter, 10-square-degree field instrument capable of providing digital imaging across the entire sky. In an endless series of ten-second exposures, the LSST will cover the available sky every three nights over a period of ten years. The telescope will be built atop Cerro Pachón in Chile.


(Large Scale Synoptic Survey Telescope site (planned))

The LSST camera is designed to provide a wide field of view - sampling more than 0.2 arcsecond; spectral sampling will be done in five or more bands from 400 nanometers (nm) to 1040 nm. The format for the image will be a circular mosaic providing more than 3 gigapixels per image. This is approximately 1,000 times the resolution of a typical digital camera photo.


(Large Scale Synoptic Survey Telescope diagram)

Google and LSST share some important characteristics; both groups seek to organize massive quantities of data and then share it in the most useful possible form. Every night that the LSST operates, it will store over thirty terabytes (30,000 gigabytes) of data. Google will provide assistance in the following areas:

  • organizing the flow of large parallel data streams
  • processing and analyzing the data streams in a continuous 24/7, fault-tolerant manner
  • providing a dynamic view of the night sky for the lay public, as well as for specialists.
Google's VP of Engineering, William Coughran, remarked that "Google's mission is to take the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful. The data from LSST will be an important part of the world's information, and by being involved in the project we hope to make it easier for that data to become accessible and useful."

The LSST will help astrophysicists explore the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy, as well as providing a movie-like picture of objects that change rapidly - like exploding supernovae. The LSST will also help with discovering near-Earth asteroids (it should be able to resolve objects as small as 100 meters) as well as distant Kuiper Belt objects.

This project is not Google's first step into the sky. Google has already collaborated with NASA in its iEarth program.

Every day, NASA's Earth Observing System (EOS) transmits terabytes of data back to ground stations. The Google Earth application already provides easy access to worldwide maps. iEarth is an application that superimposes this data on top of 3D maps provided by Google Earth.

Picking a spot on the Earth will prompt the application to look through EOS and convert that data into a file viewable from Google Earth.

These two projects have an unusual precursor in science fiction. In Neal Stephenson's excellent 1992 novel Snow Crash, Hiro Protagonist is given an amazing service - ordinarily available only to the wealthy - for free.

There is something new: A globe about the size of a grapefruit, a perfectly detailed rendition of Planet Earth, hanging in space at arm's length in front of his eyes. Hiro has heard about this but never seen it. It is a piece of CIC software called, simply, Earth. It is the user interface that CIC uses to keep track of every bit of spatial information that it owns - all the maps, weather data, architectural plans, and satellite surveillance stuff.
(Read more about CIC Virtual Earth)

Even sf visionaries like Stephenson would have called a ten year-long movie of the entire observable universe too futuristic to be believable in a novel. Nevertheless, Google engineers will present the entire universe in the palm of your hand, just like Stephenson's Virtual Earth.

Read more about Google/NASA iEarth. Don't forget their obsession with the "inner space" of humanity's imagination; take a look at Encyclopedia Googlactica - Google To Put All Human Knowledge Online. Learn more about the survey telescope at LSST.org.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 1/8/2007)

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