19 May 2016 14:38

The first ever film of the Universe is to be created by international astronomers using the world’s largest digital camera.

Lancaster University is involved in the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) project to be built in the Chilean Andes.

The telescope will achieve first light in 2020 and its main sky survey will begin in 2022.

It will be able to take images of the sky that each cover over 40 times the area of the moon, building up a survey of the entire visible sky in just three nights.

The film, which could feature dangerous asteroids and uncover some of the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy, will be recorded on a giant digital camera comprising 3.2 billion pixels.

That means billions of galaxies, stars and solar system objects will be seen for the first time and monitored over ten years. UK astronomers will now play a key part after funding from the Science and Technology Facilities Council confirmed the UK’s participation.

Professor Isobel Hook from the Department of Physics at Lancaster University is a member of the LSST:UK Board.

She said: “This telescope will completely revolutionise astronomical surveys. By imaging the entire visible sky every few nights it will be particularly powerful for finding and studying astronomical objects that change or move.

“For me one of the most exciting prospects is the vast quantity of supernovae it will find - many tens of thousands per year. We will be able to use these to better understand the mysterious Dark Energy that appears to be pushing the Universe apart."

Steven Kahn, the LSST Director said: “I am delighted that STFC is supporting UK participation in LSST. It is great to see UK astronomers engaging in preparation for LSST, and we look forward to seeing our collaboration develop over the coming years. LSST will be one of the foremost astronomy projects in the next decades and the UK astronomical community will contribute strongly to its success. The telescope is being built in the Chilean Andes. Conditions there are some of the driest on Earth, making it the ideal position for observing.

When it starts operating, it will generate one of the largest scientific datasets in the World. 

The LSST is a ‘synoptic’ survey because it will form an overall view of the Universe: billions of objects will be imaged in six colours, spanning a volume of the Universe that is larger than any previously explored.  

 “What is unique about LSST is that each of its images covers a large area of sky to a depth that captures faint objects, and that it takes these images really quickly”, said The LSST:UK Project Scientist, Sarah Bridle from the University of Manchester. “That combination of area, depth and speed means that we can do lots of different science with the same dataset.

“LSST will build up a very detailed map of billions of galaxies, with approximate distances to each, from which we will learn about the mysterious dark energy that seems to be accelerating the expansion of the Universe. But, equally, it will look for changes in the sky from night to night; both moving objects, like asteroids, and new ones, like supernovae, that appear where nothing had been seen before. Covering each patch of sky over 800 times during its decade of operations, it will construct our first motion picture of the Universe”.

The science themes of the LSST encompass astronomy, physics, chemistry, earth science, space science, mathematics, technology and computing, fostering interdisciplinary working.

As well as providing unprecedented scientific data, the development of LSST will help train future scientists and bring advances in computing:

“Extracting scientific knowledge from LSST will pose major challenges in the management and analysis of data. These “Big Data” issues are seen across the commercial sector as well as in science, but astronomy provides the ideal testbed for addressing them, as our data is free from the ethical and commercial constraints found in other domains. Many from the generation of young researchers who develop their skills preparing for the LSST data deluge will end up applying their expertise in business or the public sector, so the impact of UK participation in LSST will be felt well beyond astrophysics”, said the LSST:UK Project Leader, Bob Mann from the University of Edinburgh.

The benefits of the UK being a member of the LSST extend yet further. The LSST will provide unprecedented access to data, allowing for new kinds of citizen science and discovery. In recent years, the UK-based Zooniverse project has pioneered citizen science investigations of data in astronomy, enabling more than one million members of the public to, amongst other things, classify galaxies, discover planets and explore the outer solar system.

The Zooniverse’s Chris Lintott, member of the LSST Outreach Advisory Board, noted, “We know that data from LSST will contain a vast wealth of exciting things; we’re looking forward to making sure everyone, regardless of their background, can help us uncover what’s hidden in there”.

Discoveries made by the LSST will also be used to construct educational materials that will be freely available to schools and the public.

Andrew Norton from the Open University, the LSST:UK Education and Public Outreach Coordinator, said, "The LSST will allow us to see the night sky changing in front of our eyes and everyone can get involved to understand how the Universe works. The LSST will show us what a dynamic place the Universe is."