The Biggest Astrophoto… Ever!


Today, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey-III (SDSS-III) is releasing the largest digital color image of the sky ever made, and it’s free to all. Just how big? Step inside and find out…

According to the American Astronomical Society press release, the image has been put together over the last decade from
millions of 2.8-megapixel images, thus creating a color image of more than a trillion pixels. Just how does that relate? Even a large format professional CCD camera will only produce about 11 million pixels and really big screen to view – but this terapixel image is so big and detailed that it would take 500,000 high-definition TVs to view it at its full resolution. Can you imagine?! “This image provides opportunities for many new scientific discoveries in the years to come,” exclaims Bob Nichol, a professor at the University of Portsmouth and Scientific Spokesperson for the SDSS-III collaboration.

Where did this huge astrophoto come from? The new image is at the heart of new data being released today by the SDSS-III collaboration at 217th American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle. This new information, along with the previous data releases which it builds upon, gives astronomers the most comprehensive view of the night sky ever made. SDSS data have already been used to discover nearly half a billion astronomical objects, including asteroids, stars, galaxies and distant quasars. The latest, most precise positions, colors and shapes for all these objects are also being released today. (Time to update our software programs!) “This is one of the biggest bounties in the history of science,” says Professor Mike Blanton from New York University, who is leading the data archive work in SDSS-III. Blanton and many other scientists have been working for months preparing the release of all this data. “This data will be a legacy for the ages,” explains Blanton, “as previous ambitious sky surveys like the Palomar Sky Survey of the 1950s are still being used today.” And who among us hasn’t used the POSS program to confirm something we’ve seen or perhaps caught unexpectedly on an astrophotograph? “We expect the SDSS data to have that sort of shelf life,” comments Blanton.

So when did all of this begin? The image was started in 1998 using what was then the world’s largest digital camera: a 138-megapixel imaging detector on the back of a dedicated 2.5-meter telescope at the Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico, USA. Over the last decade, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey has scanned a third of the whole sky. Now, this imaging camera is being retired, and it will rightfully become a part of the permanent collection at the Smithsonian in recognition of its contributions to astronomy. “It’s been wonderful to see the science results that have come from this camera,” says Connie Rockosi, an astronomer from the University of California, Santa Cruz, who started working on the camera in the 1990s as an undergraduate student with Jim Gunn, Professor of Astronomy at Princeton University and SDSS-I/II Project Scientist. Rockosi’s entire career so far has paralleled the history of the SDSS camera. “It’s a bittersweet feeling to see this camera retired, because I’ve been working with it for nearly 20 years,” she says.

But what next? Thanks to such incredible resolution, the enormous image will form the cornerstone for new surveys of the Universe using the SDSS telescope. These surveys rely on other forms of data, such as spectra – an astronomical technique which employs specialized instruments to break the light from a star or galaxy into its component wavelengths. Spectra can be used to find the distances to distant galaxies, and the properties (such as temperature and chemical composition) of different
types of stars and galaxies. “We have upgraded the existing SDSS instruments, and we are using them to measure distances to over a million galaxies detected in this image,” explains David Schlegel, an astronomer from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the Principal Investigator of the new SDSS-III Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (BOSS). Schlegel
explains that measuring distances to galaxies is more time-consuming than simply taking their pictures, but in return, it provides a detailed three-dimensional map of the galaxies’ distribution in space. This is the type of accuracy we could only dream of five decades ago.

According to the press release, BOSS started taking data in 2009 and will continue until 2014, explains Schlegel. Once finished, BOSS will be the largest 3-D map of galaxies ever made, extending the original SDSS galaxy survey to a much larger volume of the Universe. The goal of BOSS is to precisely measure how so-called “Dark Energy” has changed over the recent history of the universe. These measurements will help astronomers understand the nature of this mysterious substance. “Dark energy is the biggest conundrum facing science today,” says Schlegel, “and the SDSS continues to lead the way in trying to figure out what the heck it is!” In addition to BOSS, the SDSS-III collaboration has been studying the properties and motions of hundreds of thousands of stars in the outer parts of our Milky Way Galaxy. The survey, known as the Sloan Extension for Galactic Understanding and Exploration or SEGUE started several years ago but has now been completed as part of the first year of SDSS-III.

Need more? In conjunction with the image being released today, astronomers from SEGUE are also releasing the largest map of the outer galaxy ever released. “This map has been used to study the distribution of stars in our galaxy,” says Rockosi, the Principal Investigator of SEGUE. “We have found many streams of stars that originally belonged to other galaxies that were torn apart by the gravity of our Milky Way. We’ve long thought that galaxies evolve by merging with others; the SEGUE observations confirm this basic picture.”

So what’s next? SDSS-III is also undertaking two other surveys of our galaxy through 2014. The first, called MARVELS, will use a new instrument to repeatedly measure spectra for approximately 8,500 nearby stars like our own Sun, looking for the telltale wobbles caused by large Jupiter-like planets orbiting them. MARVELS is predicted to discover around a hundred new giant planets, as well as potentially finding a similar number of “brown dwarfs” that are intermediate between the most massive planets and the smallest stars. The second survey is the APO Galactic Evolution Experiment (APOGEE), which is using one of the largest infrared spectrographs ever built to undertake the first systematic study of stars in all parts of our galaxy; even stars on the other side of our galaxy beyond the central bulge. Such stars are traditionally difficult to study as their visible light is obscured by large amounts of dust in the disk of our galaxy. However, by working at longer, infrared wavelengths, APOGEE can study them in great detail, thus revealing their properties and motions to explore how the different components of our galaxy were put together. “The SDSS-III is an amazingly diverse project built on the legacy of the original SDSS and SDSS-II surveys,” summarizes Nichol. “This image is the culmination of decades of work by hundreds of people, and has already produced many incredible discoveries. Astronomy has a rich tradition of making all such data freely available to the public, and
we hope everyone will enjoy it as much as we have.”

I do believe we will…

(The SDSS-III Data Release Eight (DR8) can be found at All data published as part of DR8 is freely available to other astronomers, scientists, and the public. Technical journal papers describing DR8 and the SDSS-III project are on the arXiv e-Print server (

Credits: American Astronomical Society Press Release, M. Blanton and the SDSS-III.

5 Replies to “The Biggest Astrophoto… Ever!”

  1. I got some of this in SQL. I have a crazy idea about convolving these data with that of WMAP. The question I have is whether the large scale distribution of galaxies has a fractal structure at all related to the CMB anisotropy.


    1. If the structure of clusters of galaxies will prove to be related to the CMB anisotropy, that would be interesting.
      Why are you looking for a ¡fractal¡ structure? The CMB anisotropy doesn’t have a fractal structure, does it?
      I wish you everything that is required for laying those data over eachother – skills, willpower, time and software. Perhaps a Nobel prize would be among rewards. If someone else doesn’t publish shortly before you do of course…

      1. I was being a bit abusive with words. The CMB is largely Gaussian, but there are deviations. Some of these deviations may be B-modes, signatures of early gravity waves, in fact gravitons from the earliest moment, which may have some sigma deviation from the background and a power law dependent on scale. These was the whole issue of the concentric circles, which had a 6-sigma deviation from the background. This is some L = 40 or 5-degree deviation in the CMB anisotropy. It would be interesting to know if there is some pattern or fractal structure there, and whether it has a Hausdorff dimension comparable to the fractal webbing of galaxies, filaments and domain walls.


      2. For high precision like 6 sigma deviation I think it’s better to wait for calculated planck results in a year or two.

        I don’t expect it will be easy to see a similarity in structure between CMB and today’s visible structure, because the clumping of matter has been so dynamic since it started. A cool (literally) little clip of history of clusters, as seen today by planck infrared instruments:

        Maybe a map of background radiation in very long wavelength could match the structure of CMB, since the timelap is not so big and clumping had only just started in a far infrared background map.

        If there is a relation in detail between CMB structure and structure in visible light, then there must be some explanation yet to be given.

      3. Third paragraph: ‘very long wavelength’ I meant to say very long infrared wavelength ( or submillimeter even?)

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