The Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System
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UNIVERSITY OF HAWAII ASTRONOMERS TO DEVELOP NEW TELESCOPES FOR "KILLER
University of Hawaii
Tuesday, October 8, 2002
Dr. Nicholas Kaiser 808-956-6898 kaiser@...
Dr. Rolf-Peter Kudritzki 808-956-8566 kudritzki@...
Mrs. Karen Rehbock 808-956-8566 rehbock@...
Astronomers at the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy (IfA) have
been awarded a $3.4 million grant by the Air Force Research Laboratories to
design a new observatory to survey the entire sky and detect very faint
objects. The Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System
(Pan-STARRS) is currently conceived of as an array of small telescopes, and
sites on either the Big Island or on Maui are being considered. Planned to
become operational in 2006, Pan-STARRS will be more powerful for survey work
than all existing telescopes combined. A major goal of the project is to
identify and track asteroids that might collide with Earth.
Commenting on the project, IfA Director Rolf Kudritzki said, "I am pleased
that the Institute will be able to play an important role in finding these
hazardous asteroids that threaten humanity."
Exploiting recent advances in electronic detector technology, Pan-STARRS
will have revolutionary optical sensors with billions of pixels, or picture
elements. The IfA is collaborating with Lincoln Laboratories of the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to develop the advanced
The telescopes will have a very large field of view, allowing them to image
an area about 30-40 times that of the full moon in a single exposure. The
system will rapidly survey large areas of the sky, making it uniquely
powerful for detecting transient objects such as supernovae, and for
detecting moving objects, such as asteroids.
Once operational, Pan-STARRS will generate huge quantities of data. To
process these, the IfA astronomers have teamed up with the Maui High
Performance Computer Center (MHPCC), and with Science Applications
International Corporation (SAIC), a leader in the field of massive
The huge database generated by Pan-STARRS will be made available over the
Internet so that others may use it for education and research. Kudritzki
commented that the Pan-STARRS database will be "a unique opportunity for
The currently favored design is an array of four relatively small
telescopes. This would permit rapid construction, and would have a small
environmental impact, because the system would be very compact. In fact, one
possibility being explored is to house the system within the university's
existing telescope building on Mauna Kea.
The IfA is working closely with the Office of Mauna Kea Management, and in
accord with the design review process set out in the Mauna Kea Science
Reserve Master Plan, to develop a design that minimizes environmental and
The data from Pan-STARRS will be used to address many scientific questions,
ranging from the origin of the Solar System to the properties of the
Universe on the largest scales. However, a major goal of the project is to
make an inventory of potentially dangerous asteroids.
It is now widely recognized that a collision with a large asteroid was
responsible for the mass extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago,
and that more frequent collisions with smaller asteroids present a real
hazard. Fatal asteroid collisions are rare, but when they happen they can be
very destructive. In fact, experts have determined that, averaged over time,
the risk of dying from an asteroid strike is approximately that of dying in
a plane crash. A number of recent widely publicized close encounters with
asteroids have highlighted the risk.
Congress has charged NASA to support searches for "killer asteroids." These
surveys determine the orbits of the asteroids that they discover, and then
project them forward to see if they will impact Earth. Pan-STARRS principal
investigator Nick Kaiser comments that "current surveys have detected
roughly half of the objects bigger than a mile in diameter. Impacts of this
size cause global-scale catastrophes. Pan-STARRS will help complete this
task and will extend the search to much smaller objects."
The Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii conducts research
into galaxies, cosmology, stars, planets, and the Sun. Its faculty and staff
are also involved in astronomy education, deep space missions, and in the
development and management of the observatories on Haleakala and Mauna Kea.
Refer to <http://www.ifa.hawaii.edu/> for more information about the
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