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.