Help the Astronomy Legacy Project digitize photographic plates

Posted by Sarah Scoles
on Friday, February 14, 2014

In October, I wrote about the Astronomy Legacy Project, an effort to digitize 220,000 photographic plates from the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute. The group has a new fundraising goal at Indiegogo, so if you like what you read below, go check it out and consider helping them do great science. Here’s a rerun of the earlier blog post, with updated links and statistics

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

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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 Indiegogo. They already have 51 backers and nearly $9,000, but there are 44 days left to go — you could help! The organization receives any donated money, even if their $60,000 isn’t met.

If you’re interested in learning more or contributing, visit the Indiegogo 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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