The Astronomy Legacy Project preserves photographic plates

Posted by Sarah Scoles
on Tuesday, October 29, 2013

This photographic plate image shows the colliding galaxies NGC 6769, 6770, and 6771, which are located 190 million light years away. The photograph was taken September 21, 1954, using the 74-inch telescope at Radcliffe Observatory. // PARI/ALP
Terabyte hard drives were not always $75 and the size of Post-it notes. Storage devices have been cumbersome for most of history, but that does not mean people didn’t have data that needed storing.

In modern, but not ultra-modern, astronomy — before CCD cameras but after the first big telescopes — scientists took observations on photographic plates. Hundreds of thousands of these exist, preserving the cosmos as it looked from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries.

More than 40 collections of such plates now call the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI) in western North Carolina home. These 220,000 sheets of glass, each containing a snapshot of an earlier universe, are part of the Astronomical Photographic Data Archive (APDA). Together, they add up to 1,000 terabytes of information — a stat that rivals the “big data” of modern observatories.

Researchers at PARI would like to preserve these plates even further by digitizing them. In digital form, they would be easier to access and search, and they would be protected against things like being dropped down the stairs and shattering into a thousand pieces.

The effort, called the Astronomy Legacy Project, aims to purchase a digitizing machine through money raised on the crowd-funding site Kickstarter. They already have 133 backers, but there are 21 days left to go — you could help!

If you’re interested in learning more or contributing, visit the Kickstarter page or the ADPA for details.

Do it. For science. Because the universe looks different now from how it looked in 1875, and digitized plates will help astronomers figure out what out there is changing.

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