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Pan-STARRS asteroid hunter and sky surveyor now fully operational

The telescope will map large portions of the sky nightly, making it an efficient sleuth for not just asteroids, but also supernovae and other variable objects.
Provided by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Artist concept of asteroid
Asteroids that cross Earth's orbit, like the one shown in this artist's conception, threaten to impact our planet. The new Pan-STARRS observatory offers our first line of defense, surveying huge swaths of the sky every night looking for moving objects.
David A. Aguilar
June 18, 2010
Astronomers announced June 16 that the first Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) telescope, PS1, is fully operational. This innovative facility will be at the frontline of Earth defense by searching for "killer" asteroids and comets. It will map large portions of the sky nightly, making it an efficient sleuth for not just asteroids, but also supernovae and other variable objects.

"Pan-STARRS is an all-purpose machine," said Edo Berger at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "Having a dedicated telescope repeatedly surveying large areas opens up a lot of new opportunities."

"PS1 has been taking science-quality data for 6 months, but now we are doing it dusk to dawn every night," said Nick Kaiser from the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy (IfA).

Pan-STARRS will map one-sixth of the sky every month. By casting a wide net, it is expected to catch many moving objects within our solar system. 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-sized bodies on the outer fringes of our solar system," said Matthew Holman from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Pan-STARRS features the world's largest digital camera — a 1,400-megapixel (1.4 gigapixels) 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. In 2008, Gizmo Watch rated this sensitive digital camera as one of the "20 marvels of modern engineering." "We played as close to the bleeding edge of technology as you can without getting cut," said inventor John Tonry from IfA.

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.

"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.

To learn more about Pan-STARRS and other all-sky surveys, check out the July 2010 issue of Astronomy, on newsstands now.
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