Fully Functional Pan-STARRS is now Panning for Stars, Asteroids and Comets

by Nancy Atkinson on June 16, 2010

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Pan-STARRS PS1 Observatory. Image courtesy of Rob Ratkowski Photography and the Haleakala Amateur Astronomers.

There’s a new eye on the skies on the lookout for ‘killer’ asteroids and comets. The first Pan-STARRS (Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System) telescope, PS1, is fully operational, ready to map large portions of the sky nightly. It will be sleuthing not just for potential incoming space rocks, but also supernovae and other variable objects.

“Pan-STARRS is an all-purpose machine,” said Harvard astronomer Edo Berger. “Having a dedicated telescope repeatedly surveying large areas opens up a lot of new opportunities.”

“PS1 has been taking science-quality data for six months, but now we are doing it dusk-to-dawn every night,” says Dr. Nick Kaiser, the principal investigator of the Pan-STARRS project.

Pan-STARRS PS1 Observatory just before sunrise on Haleakala, Maui. Credit: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophyiscs


Pan-STARRS will map one-sixth of the sky every month and basically be on the lookout for any objects that move over time. Frequent follow-up observations will allow astronomers to track those objects and calculate their orbits, identifying any potential threats to Earth. PS1 also will spot many small, faint bodies in the outer solar system that hid from previous surveys.

“PS1 will discover an unprecedented variety of Centaurs [minor planets between Jupiter and Neptune], trans-Neptunian objects, and comets. The system has the capability to detect planet-size bodies on the outer fringes of our solar system,” said Smithsonian astronomer Matthew Holman.

Pan-STARRS features the world’s largest digital camera — a 1,400-megapixel (1.4 gigapixel) monster. With it, astronomers can photograph an area of the sky as large as 36 full moons in a single exposure. In comparison, a picture from the Hubble Space Telescope’s WFC3 camera spans an area only one-hundredth the size of the full moon (albeit at very high resolution).

This sensitive digital camera was rated as one of the “20 marvels of modern engineering” by Gizmo Watch in 2008. Inventor Dr. John Tonry (IfA) said, “We played as close to the bleeding edge of technology as you can without getting cut!”

Each image, if printed out as a 300-dpi photograph, would cover half a basketball court, and PS1 takes an image every 30 seconds. The amount of data PS1 produces every night would fill 1,000 DVDs.

Another view of Pan STARRS PS1 Observatory. Image courtesy of Rob Ratkowski Photography and the Haleakala Amateur Astronomers.


“As soon as Pan-STARRS turned on, we felt like we were drinking from a fire hose!” said Berger. He added that they are finding several hundred transient objects a month, which would have taken a couple of years with previous facilities.

Located atop the dormant volcano Haleakala (that’s Holy Haleakala to you, Bad Astronomer) Pan-STARRS exploits the unique combination of superb observing sites and technical and scientific expertise available in Hawaii.

Source: CfA

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also is the host of the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast and works with Astronomy Cast. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

flogger11 June 16, 2010 at 2:55 PM

I cant imagine where technology will be in 100 years…

Aqua June 16, 2010 at 4:16 PM

I am so liking this experiment. 1.4 Gigs… wow. NICE!

Aqua June 16, 2010 at 4:17 PM

Stairway to Heaven?

Aqua June 16, 2010 at 4:20 PM

Think array… say at 14,000 ft. somewhere…fibre optic link(s). Mmmmm…. tasty.

Aqua June 16, 2010 at 4:23 PM

…or on the moon……….. or passing NEO asteroid. And sweet.

Aqua June 16, 2010 at 4:29 PM

This Bad Daddy’s talking baseline here….

Astrofiend June 17, 2010 at 3:28 AM

Sorry, but I just can’t help but be underwhelmed by the PanStarrs etendue, and the mere mention of the LSST gets me all tingly. Ever since the project was announced, nothing else will sate my appetite for sky surveying. Now the damn thing just needs to find itself funding.

I only have eyes for you, LSST.

Aqua June 17, 2010 at 1:16 PM

Tay… Large Synoptic Survey Telescope it is….

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