After more than four years and about 370,000 exposures of the night sky, the world's largest digital sky survey is now available for all to peruse.
This unprecedented mapping project was made possible by the Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System, or Pan-STARRS in Hawaii. The observatory, located at the summit of Haleakalā on Maui, is equipped with a 1.8-meter telescope that contains a 1.5 billion pixel digital camera, the largest such astronomical camera in the world.
From 2010 to 2015, scientists at the University of Hawaii Institute of Astronomy, in conjunction with researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MIPA) in Heidelberg, the Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, and several other international institutions, used Pan-STARRS to meticulously capture three-fourths of the observable night sky. The entire process was then repeated 12 times using five different filters to account for any objects hiding under different wavelengths.
In the end, more than two petabytes of data chronicling information on over 3 billion stars, galaxies and other sources was collected. The survey is vast and detailed. To give you an idea of how vast, think about this: If the image below was printed at full resolution, it would span 1.5 miles in length.
The bright disc of the Milky Way is visible as a yellow arc in this Pan-STARRS digital survey of the night sky of the Northern Hemisphere. (Photo: Danny Farrow, Pan-STARRS1 Science Consortium and Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestial Physics)
The data set, available freely online under the heading Pan-STARRS1, will help astronomers more effectively determine distances, motions and special characteristics of objects like Jupiter-like planets, star clusters, and comets and asteroids.
"Pan-STARRS1 mapped our home galaxy, the Milky Way, to a level of detail never achieved before. The survey provides, for the first time, a deep and global view of a significant fraction of the Milky Way plane and disk — an area usually avoided by surveys given the complexity of mapping these dense and dusty regions," Hans-Walter Rix, director of the Galaxies and Cosmology department of MPIA, told Phys.org.
According to MIPA Director Thomas Henning, the information contained in the directory expands the census of nearly every object in the solar neighborhood "to distances of about 300 light-years."
You can view a short video below from the Pan-STARRS team explaining the capture process and how the project will expand further in 2017: