Sloan Digital Sky Survey: Changing How Scientists – and the Public – Do Astronomy

Article written: 21 Aug , 2008
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015

Recently we’ve had articles on Universe Today that have discussed the outer Milky Way Galaxy, dark matter, and the discovery of a new minor planet. These articles have a common thread: The discoveries all come from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS). If you aren’t familiar with SDSS, it encompasses a comprehensive survey lasting more than eight years, which has so far covered more than one-quarter of the sky.

Using a dedicated 2.5 meter telescope equipped with a 125- megapixel digital camera and spectrographs that can observe 640 stars and galaxies at a time, the SDSS has created terabytes of data that include thousands of deep, multi-color images. It’s also measured the distances to nearly one million galaxies and over 100,000 quasars to create the largest ever three-dimensional maps of cosmic structure.

The SDSS archive represents a thousand-fold increase in the total amount of data that astronomers have collected to date. But almost equally impressive is the easy-to-use interface that allows anyone in the world to access the SDSS data online. Whether you are a research astronomer looking for information to help solve a cosmological puzzle or an armchair astronomy enthusiast who just likes looking at pretty pictures of the universe, SDSS is at your disposal.

Astronomers gathered in Chicago earlier this week to celebrate the accomplishments and look ahead to the future of SDSS. “What amazes me is the huge range of the discoveries that have come from SDSS data,” said SDSS-II Director Richard Kron, an astronomer at the University of Chicago and Fermilab. “We designed it primarily as a survey to map the distribution of galaxies and quasars, but it’s also had a huge impact on the study of stars, the structure of our own Galaxy, and even solar system objects.”

SDSS has found new dwarf companion galaxies to the Milky Way, confirmed Einstein’s prediction of cosmic magnification, and observed the largest known structures in the universe. The new survey, SDSS-III, will continue to expand our horizons with new studies of the structure and origins of the Milky Way Galaxy and the nature of dark energy.

SDSS was undertaken to update the database of information about the sky with current technology. The previous comprehensive guide to the heavens was the Palomar Sky Survey that was conducted in the 1950’s and used glass photographic plates to store the data.

Not only has SDSS updated the technology, but it has changed the way astronomers do business. Astronomers who are doing research or have a question can look at the existing data in SDSS rather than having to pore through the sky, taking their own data with hard-to-get telescope time.

Dr. Pamela Gay, professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and host of the Astronomy Cast podcast said SDSS not only helps her research, but enhances her work in the classroom. “It’s a wonderful project,” she said. “I’m at a small state university and while I did my dissertation on galaxies, when I landed at a state school, I thought I’d never be able to do this (study galaxies) again because I don’t have access to a large telescope. But because of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and because of the easy to use tools where I can say to my undergraduate students, ‘go find all the data on these clusters,’ it’s possible for people at small schools to do amazing, amazing research and explore the entire universe.”

SDSS also powers the popular Galaxy Zoo website, where anyone in the world can help classify galaxies via the internet. From the work done by the public from their home computers, Galaxy Zoo has submitted peer reviewed research articles to astronomical journals.

Visit the SDSS website to take a look at the images and discoveries made possible by this comprehensive survey. The Sky Server interface on the SDSS website provides the tools you need to start perusing the universe, and has educational activities for teachers and students as well.

Jim Gunn, SDSS Project Scientist from Princeton University, who has guided the project since its inception said that more than any single discovery, he is proud of the quality and scope of the SDSS data sets. “Visible light is where we understand the universe best, but when we began the SDSS, there were no sensitive, well characterized, visible-light catalogs that covered a large area of sky,” he said. “Now we have multi-color images of 300 million celestial objects, 3-dimensional maps and detailed properties of well over a million of them, and it’s all publicly available online. That changes everything.”

4 Responses

  1. Jamie Kitchen says

    I have been a big fan of ths project since I first read about it in Astronomy magazine. An even more exciting project comming online is the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) Check out tje link below. The challengewill be handling all ofteh data it produces and making sure it can be processed and accessed by the people who need it.

  2. David R. says

    Jamie, thanks for posting the link…wasn’t aware of it.

    It would be difficult to overstate the SDSS contribution. I recall vividly the many textbooks I read on the subject of astronomy, all of which have been revised, rewritten or outdated thanks to this single project. To see the pace, quality and sheer magnitude of new information available in such a short period of time will no doubt keep historians busy…

  3. Kootstar says

    In a hurry today, but added at least 3 new references for future study. My loving thanks to both Nancy and Jamie.

  4. Jon Hanford says

    SDSS certainly heralds a paradigm shift in how astronomy will be done in the 21st century. As an avid Galaxy Zoo participant, anyone (even those with no astronomical knowledge) can make important contributions to professional astronomy (e.g. Hanny’s Voorwert). The September issue of Sky & Telescope has an excellent article on the next-gen survey telescopes now online or soon to come online (LSST, PanStarrs, Discovery Channel Telescope, VLT Survey Telescope, & SkyMapper to name a few). Try googling these observatories homepages for a glance of what’s to come. All these scopes producing terabytes of data every night and available to any interested party will revolutionize the way astronomy is done. Even with computers sifting through this mountain of data, professional astronomers will need the help of amateurs to comb through some of it. As S&T mentions, amateur comet , variable star observers, asteroid hunters & supernovae hunters may need to link up with these survey sites to continue to make valuable contributions to professional astronomy, but who can say what might be found in this new age of Virtual Observatories. I for one can’t wait. BTW, PanStarrs-1 already has some test images posted at its’ site. Check it out.

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