BY: PHILIPPE DE JOCAS
In the words of the late author Douglas Adams, “Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.” To the best of our scientific knowledge and conventional wisdom, Adams’ words still hold up today. As far as we can tell, space sprawls on forever with no end in sight. Recently, observers at the international Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS project have released the latest map of the universe and it’s as breathtaking as it is truly, incredibly big.
Anyone who’s stayed up late to stargaze soon realizes the futility of trying to count every star in the heavens, but researchers from Queen’s University Belfast have struggled to do just that. After four years working on the summit of Hawaii’s Haleakalā Mountain, they’ve successfully mapped about three-quarters of the observable universe.
The project began in May 2010 as a digital survey of the sky using both visible and infrared light on the electromagnetic spectrum. This project would scan and re-scan the horizon over and over again in the hopes of looking for new “transient objects” – scientific speak for fast moving bodies such as comets or asteroids on a potential collision course with Earth. After all, nobody wants to end up like the dinosaurs. As researchers checked for potential rogue asteroids, PAN-STARRS shot thousands and thousands of high-definition images using a high-powered radio telescope. These include distant objects such as the planetoids within the Kuiper Belt, more than three billion miles away, and stars and nebulae even beyond that.
The completed map shows more than three billion objects compiled together into a single panorama, including planets in our solar system, stars in our arm of the Milky Way, and, even farther away, entirely alien galaxies, some of which dwarf our own home galaxy. As a single digital file, the map would take up more than two petabytes of data. For reference, that’s two million gigabytes of data – more than four thousand times bigger than the entirety of Wikipedia. There was no fudging the map here; this was a product of astronomical love.
Professor Stephen Smartt, chair of the Pan-STARRS1 (PS1) Science Council notes that the project has “found the most luminous distant explosions in the Universe.” These distant explosions are probably supernovae, which happen when a star reaches the end of its lifespan and subsequently goes critical.
This map is only the first step of the project, and there’s more data on the way. Part 2 arrives in 2017, a collection of catalogues and images from each individual snapshot of any given part of the sky. You too can visit the database at panstarrs.stsci.edu. Space may be vastly, hugely, big, but with a little effort we’re condensing it into a piece of digestible knowledge.