Pan-STARRS Releases ‘Census Of The Universe’ To The World

This view of the entire sky visible from Hawaii by the Pan-STARRS1 Observatory is the result of half a million exposures, each about 45 seconds in length, taken over a period of 4 years. The shape comes from making a map of the celestial sphere, like a map of the Earth, but leaving out the southern quarter. The disk of the Milky Way looks like an arc, and the dust lanes show up as reddish brown filaments. The backgound is made up of billions of faint stars and galaxies. If printed at full resolution, the image would be 1.5 miles long! Credit: Danny Farrow, Pan-STARRS1 Science Consortium and Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestial Physics

Chance are the name “Pan-STARRS” has a familiar ring to it. Beside turning up near-Earth asteroids every week, the Pan-STARRS-1 telescope has  tracked down several bright comets in recent years. In fact, that’s its primary purpose — to discover and track potential Earth-approaching objects, map their orbits and determine if any might pose a threat to our planet in the future.

If you’ve ever been to Maui and taken the long uphill drive to the summit of Mt. Haleakala, you’ve probably seen the two Pan-STARRS observatory domes, PS1 and PS2. Run by the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy, Pan-STARRS (Panoramic Survey Telescope And Rapid Response System) has been photographing the sky night after clear night, while you’ve been whooping it up at the pig roast 10,000 feet below.

Pan-STARRS recently completed a digital survey of the entire sky visible from Hawaii in visible and infrared (just beyond the red end of the rainbow spectrum) light. Begun in 2010, the survey took four years, with the telescope scanning the sky 12 times in each of five different filters. What do you get after staring into space for 4 years?  3 billion different objects including stars, galaxies, quasars, comets, asteroids and more. The immense collection contains 2 petabytes of data, which is equivalent to one billion selfies or twice the storage space needed to fit the DNA information of the entire U.S. population.

Pan-STARRS1 Observatory atop Haleakala Maui at sunset. Its mirror is 70.1 inches (1.8 meters) in diameter, and the light it gathers falls on a 1.4 billion pixel camera, the largest digital camera ever built. A typical consumer digital camera has sensor with 10 million pixels. Credit: Rob Ratkowski

“The Pan-STARRS1 Surveys allow anyone to access millions of images and use the database and catalogs containing precision measurements of billions of stars and galaxies,” said Dr. Ken Chambers, Director of the Pan-STARRS Observatories. “Pan-STARRS has made discoveries from Near Earth Objects and Kuiper Belt Objects in the solar system to lonely planets between the stars; it has mapped the dust in three dimensions in our galaxy and found new streams of stars; and it has found new kinds of exploding stars and distant quasars in the early universe.”

And it did all this while at the same time alerting us to a host of new asteroids and comets. So what’s in it for you? The Pan-STARRS survey data isn’t just for the professionals.  Students and even casual users anywhere have complete access. It’s hoped that by sharing the data, new discoveries will be made, maybe even by someone just sitting at their computer.

The Ring Nebula in Lyra (a.k.a. M57) photographed by the Pan-STARRS 1 (PS-1) Telescope. This is the view when 2400 pixels was selected in the “Cutout Image size” line. Credit: Institute for Astronomy, the University of Hawaii et. all

Feel like browsing the Pan-STARRS sky? Click here and you’ll land on a page where you can chose a target, say M57, the Ring Nebula, and download a wide field or close-up photo. Type the object’s name in the Submit window, then in the Cutout image size (field of view) select 240 pixels for a tight close-up or type in a larger number, say 600 or even 6,000, for a wider view. Under JPEG display size choose the 1024 pixel option for the highest resolution photo. Be sure to give the site a few seconds to display your photo. For a list of interesting galaxies and nebulas to explore using the survey, try this list of Messier objects.

With the new data release, you can really get in close. This is the Ring Nebula again with 300 pixels in the “Cutout Image size” line. Credit: Institute for Astronomy, the University of Hawaii et. all

Pan-STARRS also has given us an unprecedented view of the dynamic and transient (suddening changing) nature of astronomical phenomena,” said CfA astronomer Dr. Edo Berger. “Our group discovered and studied new types of supernova explosions and the disruptions of stars by supermassive black holes from the Pan-STARRS data.”

The Pan-STARRS1 Surveys program was undertaken by the PS1 Science Consortium — a collaboration among 10 research institutions in four countries with support from NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF) that mapping everything in the Hawaiian sky. It was completed in April 2014.

This first survey release, dubbed the “Static Sky,” shows an average of all the data gathered for each object. In 2017, the second set of data will be released that gives the information and images for multiple sweeps of every object.


A nice summary of the Pan-STARRS digital sky release

All the survey data resides in the Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST), which serves as a massive data/photo bank for all of NASA’s visible and ultraviolet-light observations, some of which date to the early 1970s. It includes all of the observational data from famed space telescopes such as Hubble, Kepler, GALEX, and a wide variety of other telescopes, as well as several all-sky surveys.

It’s incredible what we have at our fingertips nowadays, whether you peruse for the sheer enjoyment of seeing the latest space images or if you’re a researcher looking to answer a burning question about supernova behavior. So go ahead, go pan for some celestial gold!

Additional resources:

Pan-STARRS1 data archive home page