Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Kiwi scientists join world's astronomers to map the stars with mega-telescope

Researchers from the University of Auckland will be helping analyse data captured by the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), now being built in northern Chile. Photo / Supplied
Researchers from the University of Auckland will be helping analyse data captured by the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), now being built in northern Chile. Photo / Supplied

A team of Kiwi scientists hope to answer some of the biggest questions about our universe, by joining one of the most ambitious astronomy projects ever undertaken.

Researchers from the University of Auckland will be helping analyse a "river of data" captured by the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), now being built in northern Chile.

Equipped with the world's largest digital camera at 3200-megapixels, the LSST is a purpose-built telescope that will take repeated snapshots of the southern sky - each one the size of 40 full moons.

Over its 10-year lifespan, the data generated by the project will be measured in petabytes, or one quadrillion bytes, and will be handled by teams of astronomers around the world.

The telescope will map tens of billions of stars and galaxies, imaging most of the Southern Sky every few days.

Using the data, scientists can find objects as far away as exploding supernovae at the edge of the visible universe, to asteroids that could potentially collide with Earth.

Auckland University's Head of Physics, Dr Richard Easther, and his colleagues will use the data to find planets circling other stars, test theories of the origin and evolution of the universe, and to search for entirely new classes of astronomical objects.

"We see this as potentially the most important astronomy project New Zealand has ever been involved with and we are extremely excited to be part of it," the cosmologist said.

Beyond the astronomical discoveries the telescope will make, processing the data delivered by the LSST would drive advances in statistics and machine learning - key components of the emerging field of "big data" - and create a wealth of opportunities for Auckland students.

Further, the university's agreement with the LSST consortium would allow other Kiwi astronomers to join the project under Auckland's auspices, effectively making it a national opportunity.

Dr Easther's own research interests would centre around how the universe was expanding, and why.

"I'd like to know what the dark energy is that is driving the expansion of the universe, I'd like to know what its properties are, and I'd like to know how the seeds of the current structure of the universe were laid down right after the Big Bang.

"These are questions that the LSST, in principle, will be able to help us answer."

The telescope, expected to be operational by 2021, would be based in Cerro Pachon because of that location's extraordinarily dry air and clear skies, and its excellent view of the galaxy.

Its mapping approach differed to the "pointed mode" of conventional telescopes designed to focus on particular objects, rather than recording constant images of the entire night sky.

The LSST would also draw on entirely different technology to the multi-billion dollar Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope, that is to be stationed in Australia and Africa and would consist of dishes and millions of dipole radio receptors.

"They're quite different technically, but in terms of the questions they're going after, they're operating in a very similar ballpark."

Super-Scope: the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope

• A revolutionary telescope that will produce an unprecedented wide-field astronomical survey of our universe, using an 8.4m ground-based telescope.

• Equipped with the world's largest digital camera at 3,200-megapixels, the LSST will take repeated snapshots of the southern sky - each one the size of 40 full moons - over a 10-year lifespan.

• A team of University of Auckland scientists will be among the hundreds of astronomers from around the world helping analyse the petabytes of data captured by the US/Chile project.

- NZ Herald

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