Google me up, Scotty

Posted by Daniel Pendick
on Wednesday, January 10, 2007

After it begins operation in 2013, the 27.5-foot (8.4 meter) Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) will image an area of the sky roughly 50 times that of the Full Moon every 15 seconds. Its 3,000-megapixel digital camera will pour out 7,000 DVD's worth of bits and bytes every night, causing astronomers to reel drunkenly with data. But who in the world is going to organize and analyze such a vast amount of information? Who ya gonna call?

Google, that's who.

This side view of the 8.4-meter Large Synoptic Survey
Telescope (LSST) shows a 6-foot-tall person to illustrate scale.
The LSST will see first light by 2013. LSST.org

Google, the barnstormingly successful search-engine company, has joined the non-profit corporation that will design, build, and operate the LSST on a mountaintop in northern Chile. Google is now one of 20 private and public institutions involved in the project. According to Google's VP for engineering, William Coughran, the company's role will be to "take the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful."

What will this mean for astronomy buffs, amateur observers, and science students?

On the plus side, the LSST/Google partnership will make the sky accessible to anyone with a web browser. The LSST's bounty will be piped into schools, science museums, and planetaria. According to LSST director Tony Tyson of the University of California, Davis: "Curious minds of all ages will be able to ask new questions of the LSST's public database and zoom into a color movie of the deep universe."

Scientists get to join the global star party, too. Because the LSST re-images the sky visible to it every 3 nights, the data should make it easier to spot objects that change with time, like supernovae, near-Earth asteroids as small as 330 feet (100 meters) across, and fainter objects beyond Pluto. LSST data will assist researchers in the mapping of dark energy and the Milky Way, and generally boost our ability to inventory the solar system as never before.

Can there be a downside to the supernova of data the LSST promises?

One thing that comes to mind is how we are going to deal with an enormous increase in sightings of near-Earth objects (asteroids and comets) that pose a potential danger of collision with our home world.

Speaking of NEOs, let's hope the LSST and immediate access to its data, via Google, doesn't deprive too many amateur astronomers of the pleasure and excitement of hunting for asteroids.

I hope that people can access the wonders of the LSST without an excessive number of advertisements and commercial pitches shoveled at them. While it is reasonable for Google to expect a return on investment for providing an important service to the LSST project and the public, let's hope the Internet's 800-pound gorilla finds a non-intrusive way to do it.

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