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Penn State is Partner in Large Telescope Awarded Top U.S. Priority

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13 August 2010

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Current LSST summit facility design concept is shaped by wind and topography. (Image credit: Arcadis/LSST Corporation)

View of the full ridge of Cerro Pachon, including labels for SOAR, Gemini South and the LSST's future site, El Penon. Cerro Pachon is already home to the Gemini South 8-meter telescope and the SOAR 4.1-meter telescope. (Image credit: C. Claver, NOAO/LSST)

A report released this morning for the National Academy of Sciences by a committee of the National Research Council ranked the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) as its top priority for the next large ground-based astronomical facility. The "Astro2010" report states that, of all the competing astronomy projects, the LSST achieved the top rank for its compelling science objectives and because "the committee judged that LSST was the most ready-to-go."

"The LSST is one of the most ambitious ground-based astronomical projects ever undertaken," said Larry Ramsey, head of Penn State's Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics and a member of the LSST Board of Directors. "It promises to provide fundamental advances in many fields of astrophysics, from the identification of potential 'killer asteroids' to the global properties of the universe."

"We are absolutely delighted to hear this strong endorsement from our colleagues in the scientific community for a project that we have been advocating for many years," said J. Anthony Tyson, the LSST Director and a University of California, Davis, professor. "LSST will transform the way we study the universe. By mapping the visible sky deeply and rapidly, the LSST will let everyone experience a novel view of our universe and enable exploration of exciting new questions in a variety of areas of astronomy and fundamental physics." Ramsey said "I am particularly interested the LSST's potential to investigate variability in a multitude of sources on timescales of hours to years."

Penn State has been a member institution in the LSST collaboration for many years, and a number of Penn State astronomers, in addition to Ramsey, are leaders and scientific contributors on the LSST team. Niel Brandt, distinguished professor of astronomy and astrophysics, is leading Penn State's scientific efforts in the LSST project. Brandt is a member of the LSST Science Council and the chair of the LSST Active Galactic Nuclei Science Collaboration, a group of more than 20 scientists who study quasars. "The LSST will produce the largest census ever completed of Active Galactic Nuclei, often called quasars," Brandt said. "Today we have identified approximately a million quasars, which are believed to be massive black holes that can be over a billion times more massive than the Sun. Our studies indicate that LSST will increase this number by a factor of at least ten, and will detect them at greater distances than ever before."

In addition to Ramsey and Brandt, other Penn State scientists on the LSST team include Donald Schneider, distinguished professor of astronomy and astrophysics, who is the LSST Publications Manager, and Eric Feigelson, professor of astronomy and astrophysics, and Jogesh Babu, professor of statistics, who have participated in scientific meetings for the LSST project.

The LSST is scheduled to begin full survey operations 6 years after the start of its construction on Cerro Pachón, a mountain in northern Chile. The 8.4-meter LSST telescope will be equipped with the world's largest digital camera — 3.2 billion pixels. This system will survey the entire visible sky to very faint limits in multiple colors every week.

The survey will last for 10 years and will produce 2000 images of every part of the sky over 20,000 square degrees. It will produce 30 Terabytes of data per night, yielding a total database of 100 Petabytes. This massive data set will be used to construct for the first time a color "movie" of the sky that will enable unique and powerful studies of objects that move or change in brightness. Examples range from potentially hazardous near-Earth asteroids to exploding massive stars in the distant universe. The total ten-year data set can also be used to probe the mysteries of Dark Matter and Dark Energy, two of the most pressing challenges to our current understanding of the fundamental forces and basic building blocks of nature.

A unique feature of the project is that the database and resulting catalogs will be made available to the US and Chilean communities at large with no proprietary restrictions. A sophisticated data-management system will provide easy access, enabling simple queries and exploration of the images by individual users, including professionals, amateurs, educators, and the public. As described by Google CEO Eric Schmidt: "LSST will produce a New Sky. Unique probes of our universe will result from this innovation, enabling discovery of unimagined phenomena. LSST will collect and organize the information in an expansive new view of our universe, making it available to curious minds of all ages."

Thirty-four universities and national labs have joined together in a public-private partnership to build LSST. The National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy Office of Science have contributed funds for design and development of the LSST. Significant private support has come from Charles Simonyi, who said he was motivated by the broad impact of the project. "The broad science and educational opportunities enabled by LSST have been reaffirmed by this top ranking by the National Academy of Sciences. With LSST, we'll be able to gather thousands of times more data than possible until now, producing a 'movie' of our universe and a database suitable for answering a wide range of pressing questions: What is dark energy? How did the Milky Way form? Are there potentially hazardous asteroids that may impact the Earth? And what sort of new phenomena have yet to be discovered? Let's get on with construction."

Another major donor, Bill Gates, said "LSST is just as imaginative in its technology and approach as it is with its science mission. The 8.4 meter LSST telescope and the three gigapixel camera are thus a shared resource for all humanity - the ultimate network peripheral device to explore the universe."

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Larry Ramsey: lwr@astro.psu.edu, office (+1)814-865 0410, mobile 814-364-2687
Niel Brandt: niel@astro.psu.edu, office (+1)814-865-3509, mobile 814-867-3560
Donald Schneider: dps@astro.psu.edu (+1)814-863-9554, mobile 814-238-0010
Barbara Kennedy (PIO): science@psu.edu, (+1)814-863-4682

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