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Surveying the Universe

A new UW center prepares for unprecedented amounts of space data

September 2016
Milky Way Galaxy

The origin of the Universe remains a mystery, inspiring creation stories and scientific theories. Soon astrophysicists will have a new tool in their search for answers: the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), featuring the world’s largest and most powerful digital camera.

The camera will take pictures of the sky every 20 seconds, completing a survey of the visible sky every three nights. Over ten years, it will capture an almost unimaginable trove of data that will alert scientists to changes in the sky over time. “It’s these changes that allow us to build our models for our universe, to predict its future and to explain its past,” says Andrew Connolly, professor of astronomy.

As a founding member of the LSST project, Department of Astronomy faculty and staff are involved in all aspects of the telescope, scheduled for completion in 2019. The captured data will be open source, accessible to anyone in the U.S. or Chile, but devising the software and algorithms to analyze all that data is a major aspect of the project. Researchers at the UW’s Center for Data-intensive Research in Astrophysics and Cosmology, established through a gift from Charles Simonyi, will develop the tools needed to work with the mountains of data. The Center is seeking matching gifts to expand its capabilities.

“When the LSST comes online at the end of this decade it will address big questions, from measuring the nature of the dark energy that drives the expansion of our universe to finding asteroids that may one day impact the Earth, providing enough warning that those asteroids’ trajectories can be modified,” says Connolly. “LSST could completely transform our knowledge of our universe.”