The vision took on new form when Wayne Osbourne (Central Michigan University) recommended that Griffin visit a past student, Michael Castelatz, at PARI. PARI was originally created in a radio quiet zone to track manned spacecraft. In the 1990s it was left with some resources that would prove valuable for the archiving and storage of plates. A 120,000-square-foot, air-conditioned building has the necessary controlled environment for the safe storage of photographic plates. Griffin recognized PARI's potential immediately.
"The thre- year plan of the current project begins with an inventory of collections and learning what is out there," said Castelatz. "Then we'll establish a preservation and digitizing scheme for the plate."
The first plate collection has already arrived at PARI — 2,200 objective prism plates from the University of Michigan.
Once the "at risk" plates are safely stored, the long-term process of digitizing plates will take place. The cost of the project, including salary for an archivist and the costs for shipping and handling of delicate photographic plates, is about $100,000 a year. Funding sources are being sought.
Why is this preservation so important? Elizabeth Griffin explains, "I cannot go back a hundred years and take that data again. If there's a supernova somewhere, the clues to identifying which star went supernova might be hidden on one of these plates. They're time capsules of the sky, snapshots of a time that cannot be returned to."
If this (digitizing) is not done, over 100 years of data with great potential to assist astrophysical research will be lost.
Michael Castelatz adds an interesting comparison for our digital generation. "Not archiving the vast array of photographic plates would be like throwing away the Hubble Space Telescope archive once its mission is done."
A special session is planned at the January 2006 meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington, DC. For more information, visit the PARI site