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
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
* Palomar Observatory