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New Sky Survey Begins at Palomar Observatory

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  • Ron Baalke
    Media Relations Caltech Pasadena, California MEDIA CONTACT: Scott Kardel, Palomar Public Affairs Director (760) 742-2111 wsk@astro.caltech.edu July 29, 2003
    Message 1 of 2 , Aug 1, 2003
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      Media Relations
      Pasadena, California

      Scott Kardel, Palomar Public Affairs Director
      (760) 742-2111 wsk@...

      July 29, 2003

      New Sky Survey Begins at Palomar Observatory

      PALOMAR Mountain, Calif. -- A major new sky survey has begun at the Palomar
      Observatory. The Palomar-QUEST survey, a collaborative venture between the
      California Institute of Technology, Yale University, the Jet Propulsion
      Laboratory, and Indiana University, will explore the universe from our solar
      system out to the most distant quasars, more than 10 billion light-years away.

      The survey will be done using the newly refurbished 48-inch Oschin Telescope,
      originally used to produce major photographic sky atlases starting in 1950s. At
      its new technological heart is a very special, fully digital camera. The camera
      contains 112 digital imaging detectors, known as charge-coupled devices (CCDs).
      The largest astronomical camera until now has had 30 CCDs. CCDs are often used
      for digital imaging ranging from common snapshot cameras to sophisticated
      scientific instruments.

      Designed and built by scientists at Yale and Indiana Universities, the QUEST
      (Quasar Equatorial Survey Team) camera was recently installed on the Oschin
      Telescope. "We are excited by the new data we are starting to obtain from the
      Palomar Observatory with the new QUEST camera," says Charles Baltay, Higgins
      Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Yale University. Baltay's dream of
      building a large electronic camera that could capture the entire field of view
      of a wide-field telescope is now a reality.

      The survey will generate astronomical data at an unprecedented rate, about one
      terabyte per month; a terabyte is a million megabytes, an amount of information
      approximately equivalent to that contained in two million books. In two years,
      the survey will generate an amount of information about equal to that in the
      entire Library of Congress.

      A major new feature of the Palomar-QUEST survey will be many repeated
      observations of the same portions of the sky, enabling researchers to find not
      only objects that move (like asteroids or comets), but also objects that vary in
      brightness, such as the supernova explosions, variable stars, quasars, or cosmic
      gamma-ray bursts -- and to do this at an unprecedented scale.

      "Previous sky surveys provided essentially digital snapshots of the sky", says
      S. George Djorgovski, professor of astronomy at Caltech. "Now we are starting to
      make digital movies of the universe." Djorgovski and his team, in collaboration
      with the Yale group, are also planning to use the survey to discover large
      numbers of very distant quasars -- highly luminous objects believed to be
      powered by massive black holes in the centers of young galaxies -- and to use
      them to probe the early stages of the universe.

      Richard Ellis, Steele Professor of Astronomy and director of the Caltech Optical
      Observatories, will use QUEST in the search for exploding stars, known as
      supernovae. He and his team, in conjunction with the group from Yale, will use
      their observations of these exploding stars in an attempt to confirm or deny the
      recent finding that our universe is accelerating as it expands.

      Shri Kulkarni, MacArthur Professor of Astronomy and Planetary Science at
      Caltech, studies gamma-ray bursts, the most energetic stellar explosions in the
      cosmos. They are short lived and unpredictable. When a gamma-ray burst is
      detected its exact location in the sky is uncertain. The automated Oschin
      Telescope, armed with the QUEST camera's wide field of view, is poised and ready
      to pin down the exact location of these explosions, allowing astronomers to
      catch and study the fading glows of the gamma-ray bursts as they occur.

      Closer to home, Caltech associate professor of planetary astronomy Mike Brown is
      looking for objects at the edge of our solar system, in the icy swarm known as
      the Kuiper Belt. Brown is convinced that there big objects out there, possibly
      as big as the planet Mars. He, in collaboration with astronomer David Rabinowitz
      of Yale, will use QUEST to look for them.

      Steve Pravdo, project manager for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Near-Earth
      Asteroid Tracking (NEAT) Project, will use QUEST to continue the NEAT search
      which began in 2001. The QUEST camera will extend the search for asteroids that
      might one day approach or even collide with our planet.

      The Palomar-QUEST survey will undoubtedly enable many other kinds of scientific
      investigations in the years to come. The intent is to make all of the copious
      amounts of data publicly available in due time on the Web, as a part of the
      nascent National Virtual Observatory. Roy Williams, member of the professional
      staff of Caltech's Center for Advanced Computing Research, is working on the
      National Virtual Observatory project, which will greatly increase the scientific
      impact of the data and ease its use for public and educational outreach as well.

      The QUEST team members from Indiana University are Jim Musser, Stu Mufson, Kent
      Honeycutt, Mark Gebhard, and Brice Adams. Yale University's team includes
      Charles Baltay, David Rabinowitz, Jeff Snyder, Nick Morgan, Nan Ellman, William
      Emmet, and Thomas Hurteau. The members from the California Institute of
      Technology are S. George Djorgovski, Richard Ellis, Ashish Mahabal, and Roy
      Williams. The Near-Earth Asteroid Tracking team from the Jet Propulsion
      Laboratory consists of Raymond Bambery, principal investigator, and
      coinvestigators, Eleanor Helin, Michael Hicks, Eric De Jong, Kenneth Lawrence,
      and Steven Pravdo.

      Installation of the QUEST camera at the Palomar Observatory was overseen by
      Robert Brucato, Robert Thicksten, and Hal Petrie.

      Photos available at

      Related Link:

      * Palomar Observatory
    • Robert Stephens
      Greetings all! Forgive the somewhat off topic nature of this post but we are launching a new group called the Society for Astronomical Sciences (SAS),
      Message 2 of 2 , Aug 1, 2003
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        Greetings all! Forgive the somewhat off topic nature of this post but we
        are launching a new group called the Society for Astronomical Sciences
        (SAS), previously the Western Wing of the IAPPP. It is our hope to
        expand the membership to include more of those interested in and doing
        spectroscopy, photometry, astrometry and other activities with small
        telescopes. More information can be found at our web site

        Members will receive discounts on the annual symposium held in May for
        the past 21 years in Southern California, called the Symposium on
        Telescope Science. Several members of this group have attended
        symposiums in the past. Members will also receive a newsletter. The
        first edition of the newsletter can be found at:

        Robert Stephens
        Society for Astronomical Science
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