In the grand scheme of things, it’s fair to say that we know comparatively little about the universe around us. Its mysteries are in the millions, but one thing we can all agree on is that it’s a fairly big place.

Big enough in fact to make any plans to photograph it all seem like a rather daunting task – but it’s a task which The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory have gladly accepted. Since the early 1990s the groups have been lobbying for a telescope to survey the sky, and at last the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope has been voted the ‘highest-priority ground-based instrument’ in the decadal Astronomy and Astrophysics Survey. Even big names like Bill Gates are on board; who has already donated $10 million.

The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope

The LSST is estimated to begin operating in 2022, and will produce an archive of 60 petabytes of data for public viewing. What data exactly? The decade-long survey of the sky should identify billions of objects throughout the sky as well as hunt for dark matter and energy, and the results will hopefully provide answers to an array of fundamentally different questions about our universe.

The telescope will do all of this using a 3200 megapixel camera and monstrous 3.5 degree field of view – which might not sound like a big number, but when we consider that the moon takes up around .5 of a degree when viewed from earth it begins to seem quite impressive.
All of this will combine to pan around 20,000 square degrees of the sky each night and record 20 terabytes of data in the process. At its heart lies the world’s largest digital camera; coming in at 1.6 meters tell, 3 metres long and 2800 kg in weight – comparable to a middle sized car.

In terms of hardware then it clearly packs enough of a punch to record its estimated 200,000 detailed images each year, but those images are going to need storage – and that’s where the real problem crops up. Even in today’s employment climate, you’d struggle to find a research assistant enthusiastic enough to sift through 20 terabytes of data each night, and so state of the art data mining technology will be working round the clock to process it all and make it available to us in the public.

The significance of this data is, for most of us, primarily guess work. Understanding dark matter is one of the most fundamentally important aspects of understanding our universe, and my hope is that the LSST will help us make some progress there. Whatever happens, we can probably expect a fairly impressive new Google Sky Map in the future and some pretty awesome new desktop backgrounds.

The author of this article, Rob, writes for varifocal lenses experts Direct Sight