Sunday, May 25, 2003

UH plans observatory
to spot rogue asteroids

A new way of
looking at space

University of Hawaii astronomer Nick Kaiser will discuss "From Asteroids to Cosmology: The Science Potential of the Pan-STARRS Survey" in a free "Frontiers of Astronomy" public lecture at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday in the School of Architecture Auditorium, UH-Manoa campus.

The University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy is designing an observatory with an array of four small telescopes enabling scientists to survey about one-fourth of the sky in one night and detect very faint objects.

One of the major goals of the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) is to detect potentially hazardous asteroids that are not in the main asteroid belt, but still in an orbit bringing them into the inner solar system, said astronomer Nick Kaiser.

The project is budgeted at about $50 million, he said. Construction is expected to take about five years, and planners hope to get the first telescope up in 2 1/2 years, with others following, he said.

The new observatory could be constructed either at the University of Hawaii's facility on Mauna Kea or at Haleakala on Maui, he said. Site tests are under way at both sites to measure image quality for Pan-STARRS.

Light pollution would be worse on Maui than the Big Island, but a Haleakala site would solve a big problem in transporting information gathered by the telescopes to the Maui High Performance Computer Center, which will process the data, he said.

Pan-STARRS will permit astronomers to construct a deep, sensitive and multicolor image of the entire sky in about 10 years, said Kaiser, principal investigator for the Air Force-funded project.

Also, he said, "We'll be able to take variable objects, movable and transient objects, things that go bump in the night, and we'll be able to track them. ... This will be very possible for detecting, for example, asteroids."

Chances are small but possible that asteroids in the inner solar system could hit Earth, causing significant damage, he said.

"What we plan to do over the lifetime of the project is to detect most of the asteroids in the inner solar system down to objects about 350 meters across and find out if they're actually hazardous."

Each of the four telescopes will be 1.8 meters, a lot smaller than some telescopes on Mauna Kea, but each will have a wide field of view, Kaiser said.

Each one will have an electronic camera with 1 billion pixels. The largest one now, at the Canada France Hawaii Telescope, has 300 million pixels, so cameras on each of the four new telescopes will be three times larger, he said.

"What this will enable us to do is survey the sky with a series of exposures, one after another," he said. "We can image a substantial fraction of the whole sky every night."

Pan-STARRS will generate about 10 terabytes (1 trillion bytes) of data per night and about 40 petabytes of data over the project's lifetime. Forty petabytes equals 40 quadrillion bytes.

In plain terms, that means "a whole lot of data," Kaiser said.

Kaiser said the project represents a big team effort in the Institute for Astronomy, which is leading the world with development of state-of-the-art electronic CCD (charge-coupled device) cameras.


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