ANU awarded research grant for Skymapper telescope

The telescope will be used for its five-year Southern Sky Survey, a database of every object in the southern hemisphere sky

The Australian National University (ANU) has been awarded a $390,000 research grant for its Southern Sky Survey of stars and galaxies in the southern hemisphere, scheduled to start in the next couple of months.

The three-year grant, awarded by the Australian Research Council (ARC), will give the university $139,000 per year for the survey which will run for about five years.

ANU Professor of astronomy, Gary Da Costa, told Computerworld Australia the survey will be carried out using the university’s Skymapper telescope which was built 18 months ago and is located at Siding Spring Observatory near Coonabarabran in western NSW.

“The project consists basically of a telescope which has a 256 megapixel digital camera on the back,” Da Costa said. “Together they can image an area of the sky that’s 5.7 degrees in size and so we’re using that camera to make a digital map of the whole southern hemisphere sky.”

The telescope was built to replace the ANU’s previous telescope which was located at Mount Stromlo Observatory just outside Canberra and destroyed by bushfires in 2003.

“We decided we weren’t going to build any new telescopes on Mount Stromlo because the lights of Canberra mean you can’t image stars as they put light into the sky,” he said. “Light pollution is one of the most common problems astronomers have to deal with.”

At the time of the fires, the university still had its other telescope, which is 2.3 metres and also located at the Siding Spring Observatory. But it only has the ability to study one star at a time, Da Costa said.

“Skymapper has the camera which images a large amount of sky, that information is digital and is then shipped back to the ANU supercomputer centre where we process the images and measure the brightness of stars and galaxies,” he said. “The ultimate plan is to create a database that will be accessible for anyone in the world so that astronomers anywhere can learn about the characteristics of the southern hemisphere stars and galaxies.

According to Da Costa, the database will document every object in the southern hemisphere sky down to about a 20th magnitude and will give the position, the brightness in each of the colour filter bands, an index about whether that object is varied over time, and classify the shape and parameters if it’s a galaxy.

“Ultimately it will be a free publicly accessible database and it’ll contain in the order of a billion entries so it’ll be a very large and there’ll be a lot of computing resources needed to handle it which is why we have the ANU supercomputing people involved.”

“Although the Skymapper has been on the mountain for about a year and a half and the camera in operation for nine months, we’re still going through a commissioning process.

“There’s the telescope, the camera, the analysis of the images which you then shoot down to the supercomputing centre which are then run through the processing software to create the database so we’ve got to commission that whole pipeline of processes and we’re in the middle of doing that now.”

The build of both the telescope and the digital camera were previously funded by the ANU, Da Costa said, with the ARC grant going primarily toward the employment of post-doctorate fellows to conduct the research as well as overseas travel to conferences to publicise the work and to replace any aged equipment.

The research team will be led by Nobel Laureate, Professor Brian Schmidt, as well as about six others all of which will focus on a different area of astronomy.

“Brian is interested in supernovae [the instance where some stars explode at the end of their life with which they release a large amount of energy] and he uses those to measure distances to galaxies, work out how far they’re moving away from us and then how the universe is expanding.”

“I’ll be focusing on the formation of our own galaxy which we call the Milky Way,” he said. “Skymapper will enable us to learn new things about how our galaxy formed… a long time ago small galaxies came together to merge and form a bigger galaxy like our own and in the distant outer parts of our galaxy there are still traces of that accretion process, star streams, and Skymapper should be good at finding those.”

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More about: ARC, Australian National University, Australian Research Council, Australian Research Council, NU
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