Pitt, 22 Partners Get $30 Million Gift for Huge Telescope Project

Issue Date: 
January 14, 2008

The University of Pittsburgh and 22 partner institutions made a major advance this month in a nearly 14-year project to develop the world’s most powerful survey telescope and provide an unprecedented view of deep space.

The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) Project received $10 million and $20 million, respectively, from computer mogul and Microsoft founder Bill Gates and the Charles Simonyi Fund for Arts and Sciences, established by Microsoft executive Charles Simonyi. The donations will enable the construction of the telescope’s three large mirrors, which will take five years to manufacture.

The LSST is a massive public-private venture under development since 2000 and directed by University of California at Davis Professor J. Anthony Tyson. Estimated for completion in 2014, the powerful telescope will capture and record the movement and development of space in a multi-color, movie-like format.

At 3 billion pixels, the LSST will be the largest digital camera ever built and will generate 30 trillion bytes of data per night from its perch on Cerro Pachón, a mountain in northern Chile. The detailed footage will provide a unique opportunity to study the dark matter that constitutes much of the visible sky and the mysterious dark energy causing the universe’s expansion. All information will be made available as it is observed on one of the largest public databases ever created.

Pitt joined the project as a partner institution in July 2007. Several faculty members from Pitt’s Department of Physics and Astronomy in the School of Arts and Sciences are involved in developing the LSST and the preliminary logistics of surveying a swath of the universe.

Pitt assistant professor Jeffrey Newman, a nationally recognized expert on large survey astronomy, works closely with LSST director Tyson on developing new measurement techniques for determining how far back in the universe’s history the telescope is looking. By measuring how a number of quantities—such as the effects of gravity on large scales—relate to distance and time, LSST will help in determining the makeup and strength of dark energy. Newman and Tyson are using existing telescope observations to develop and test time-distance scales for the LSST.

Pitt astronomy professor Arthur Kosowsky and assistant professor Andrew Zentner will help conduct the theoretical work behind interpreting the data LSST will collect. “LSST is the next big step in measuring the growth of cosmic structures and the influence of sources surrounding them,” Kosowsky said. The shape of a galaxy as seen from Earth is slightly distorted because of the gravity of seen and unseen masses the galaxy’s light passes before reaching our planet, an effect known as gravitational lensing. The LSST will have uniquely powerful capabilities to measure this subtle influence, providing insight into the relationship of celestial objects to one another and the dark matter surrounding them, Kosowky said. Zentner’s work focuses on using the gravitational lensing detected by LSST as a tool for measuring how quickly galaxies grow and how they relate to dark matter and dark energy.

From Pitt’s Department of Computer Science, professors Panos K. Chrysanthis and Alexandros Labrinidis—codirectors of the University’s Advanced Data Management Technologies Laboratory—will work to efficiently managing the immense amount of data LSST will collect. The data generated and processed each night would fill all of the books in the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh branches, Kosowsky said.

“By participating in LSST,” Newman said, “Pitt researchers will both influence the shape of this next-generation, revolutionary astronomical dataset and have premier access to it.”
Pitt is not the only Pittsburgh institution involved in LSST.

Carnegie Mellon University became a partner institution Jan. 2, and plans to work with Pitt and the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center—a joint effort of the two universities and Westinghouse Electric Company—to contribute to managing LSST data.

Google Inc. also is a partner and plans to provide expertise on rapid and robust handling of large databases. Google’s Pittsburgh office has worked closely with Pitt astronomers in the past. Newman worked directly with the office for the October release of color images and data catalogs documenting the past 10 billion years of galactic evolution onto Google Sky. The images were products of the All-wavelength Extended Groth Strip International Survey, or AEGIS, a massive project involving nearly 100 researchers to map the Extended Groth Strip—an area the width of four full moons near the “handle” of the Big Dipper constellation—using all available wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum-from X-rays to ultraviolet, visible, infrared, and radio waves.