Written by Nancy Atkinson
Pan-STARRS PS1 Observatory just before sunrise on Haleakala, Maui. Credit: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophyiscs
There's a new eye on the skies on the lookout for 'killer' asteroids and comets. The first Pan-STARRS (Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System) telescope, PS1, is fully operational, ready to map large portions of the sky nightly, making it an efficient sleuth for not just potential incoming space rocks, but also supernovae and other variable objects.
"Pan-STARRS is an all-purpose machine," said Harvard astronomer Edo Berger. "Having a dedicated telescope repeatedly surveying large areas opens up a lot of new opportunities."
"PS1 has been taking science-quality data for six months, but now we are doing it dusk-to-dawn every night," says Dr. Nick Kaiser, the principal investigator of the Pan-STARRS project.
Pan-STARRS will map one-sixth of the sky every month and basically be on the lookout for any objects that move over time. Frequent follow-up observations will allow astronomers to track those objects and calculate their orbits, identifying any potential threats to Earth. PS1 also will spot many small, faint bodies in the outer solar system that hid from previous surveys.
"PS1 will discover an unprecedented variety of Centaurs [minor planets between Jupiter and Neptune], trans-Neptunian objects, and comets. The system has the capability to detect planet-size bodies on the outer fringes of our solar system," said Smithsonian astronomer Matthew Holman.
Pan-STARRS features the world's largest digital camera — a 1,400-megapixel (1.4 gigapixel) monster. With it, astronomers can photograph an area of the sky as large as 36 full moons in a single exposure. In comparison, a picture from the Hubble Space Telescope's WFC3 camera spans an area only one-hundredth the size of the full moon (albeit at very high resolution).
This sensitive digital camera was rated as one of the "20 marvels of modern engineering" by Gizmo Watch in 2008. Inventor Dr. John Tonry (IfA) said, "We played as close to the bleeding edge of technology as you can without getting cut!"
Each image, if printed out as a 300-dpi photograph, would cover half a basketball court, and PS1 takes an image every 30 seconds. The amount of data PS1 produces every night would fill 1,000 DVDs.
"As soon as Pan-STARRS turned on, we felt like we were drinking from a fire hose!" said Berger. He added that they are finding several hundred transient objects a month, which would have taken a couple of years with previous facilities.
Located atop the dormant volcano Haleakala (that's Holy Haleakala to you, Bad Astronomer) Pan-STARRS exploits the unique combination of superb observing sites and technical and scientific expertise available in Hawaii.
Source: CfAObservatories, Pan-STARRS