Complicated mammals standing on the wings of robots: Data from new telescope will open windows in time

By 2020, astronomers and citizen scientists alike will have the luxury of exploring a three-dimensional cosmic map of the universe, the most detailed, in-depth survey of its kind.

The ongoing work to build the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) in the Andean foothills of northern Chile will yield a 3.2 billion pixel camera capable of capturing the sky every 20 seconds on a primary mirror the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.

The LSST will help scientists eliminate theories of dark energy, discover myriad supernovae and locate asteroid patterns a lightyear from our solar system. The enterprising project will also allow for further pondering what drives universe expansion and possibly the basic origins of life, according to LSST Astronomer and University of Washington Professor Andrew Connolly.

“This is changing the way that we do science,” Connolly said. “It’s changing the way we do astronomy to a place were algorithms and software have to mine through this data. where the software is as critical to the science as the telescopes that we’ve built.”

One image from the LSST is equivalent to 3,000 images from the Hubble Space Telescope, one of the most fruitful scientific missions in history. Each image equates to three and a half degrees of the sky, or seven times the width of the full moon.

Over its mission lifetime, the LSST will detect 40 billion stars and galaxies, Connolly said.

Although the first supernova was found by Chinese astronomers in 185 A.D., the rate of discovery has been painfully slow compared to how quickly the universe is expanding. On average, 10 supernovae explode per second in our universe on a scale of one supernova explosion per galaxy every 1,000 years. With the help of the LSST, scientists will have for the first time detected more objects in the universe than people on earth, Connolly said.

The project hopes to contribute to a milestone fast approaching of within the next two decades scientists having discovered a majority of galaxies in our universe.

“As we enter this era of big data, what we’re beginning to find we are able to determine differences in the data we collect,” Connolly said. “Development of technologies over the next two decades that with the smart use of data, will once again transform astronomy by opening up a window into our universe: the window of time.”

Connolly said scientists could answer a question still haunting cosmologists everywhere: Is there something unusual about how our solar system formed?

To answer the question, researchers will have to head back to history class, trying to observe the detail of the early solar system by tracking asteroids across the solar system and galaxy.

A historical forensic analysis.

The implications could lead to finding evidence for planets outside the orbit of Neptune; to find earth-impacting asteroids long before they threaten the planet; and to find if our sun formed in its own cluster of stars or if the cluster helped for our solar system.

“The positions of the asteroids are like fingerprints of an earlier time when the orbits of Neptune and Jupiter were much closer to the sun,” Connolly said.

With the discovery in 1929 showing the universe was expanding, 70 years later in 199 when scientists learned the universe wasn’t just expanding but accelerating—termed as dark energy—from studying a handful of 42 supernovae and their brightness from galaxies 20,000 times more distant than shot by Hubble.

“Small changes give rise to big consequences,” Connolly said. “Small changes turn our understanding of our universe on its head.”

Dark energy accounts of nearly 72 percent of our universe’s energy budget and through the LSST, scientists could examine the properties of dark energy.

“Some people think about a dark energy that changes with time or whether the properties of the dark energy are different depending on where you look on the sky. Others make differences and changes to physics at a subatomic level, or they look at large scales and change how gravity and general relativity work, or they change many and believe our universe is part of the multiverse.”

Connolly said the ideas and theories were “amazing and some admittedly a little crazy,” but consistent with the previous 42 points discovered in the last century.

But the current thought around dark energy could be like completing a task with a hand tied behind your back.  Connolly equated it to rolling a pair of dice.

By 2030, the LSST will have discovered 1.5 million supernovae—from peering through a keyhole to sprawling a map across a table.

“In its first night of operation, it will find 10 times the number of supernovae used in the discovery of dark energy,” Connolly said. “Combining the supernovae data with other measures of cosmology, we will progressively rule out the different theories and ideas of dark energy.”

Connolly questioned if looking through thousands of galaxies revealed 42 supernovae that upended fundamental theories of the universe, how many many more times would science find anomalies that don’t match expectations.

“Like dark energy or quantum mechanics or general relativity—all ideas that came to us because the data didn’t quite match what we expected,” Connolly said. “We don’t even know how many answers are out there waiting.”

Andrew Connolly’s work focuses on using large surveys to study cosmology and the evolution of galaxies. This ranges from studying the clustering of galaxies and their evolution with redshift, weak gravitational lensing of galaxies, and estimating the properties of galaxies based on their colors

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