Pan-STARRS solves the biggest problem facing every astronomer (Synopsis)

“If you can’t measure something, you can’t understand it. If you can’t understand it, you can’t control it. If you can’t control it, you can’t improve it.” -H. James Harrington

If you want to observe the night sky, it’s not quite as simple as pointing your telescope and collecting photons. You have to calibrate your data, otherwise your interpretation of what you’re looking at could be skewed by gas, dust, the atmosphere or other intervening factors that you’ve failed to consider. Without a proper calibration, you don’t know how reliable what you’re looking at is.

Pan-STARRS1 Observatory atop Haleakala Maui at sunset. Image credit: Rob Ratkowski. Pan-STARRS1 Observatory atop Haleakala Maui at sunset. Image credit: Rob Ratkowski.

The previous best calibration was the Digitized Sky Survey 2, which went down to 13 millimagnitudes, or an accuracy of 1.2%. Just a few weeks ago, Pan-STARRS released the largest astronomy survey results of all-time: 2 Petabytes of data. It quadruples the accuracy of every calibration we’ve ever had, and that’s before you even get into the phenomenal science it’s uncovered.

This compressed view of the entire sky visible from Hawai'i by the Pan-STARRS1 Observatory is the result of half a million exposures, each about 45 seconds in length. Image credit: Danny Farrow, Pan-STARRS1 Science Consortium and Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics. This compressed view of the entire sky visible from Hawai'i by the Pan-STARRS1 Observatory is the result of half a million exposures, each about 45 seconds in length. Image credit: Danny Farrow, Pan-STARRS1 Science Consortium and Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics.

Come learn how it’s solved the biggest problem facing every astronomer, and why observational astronomy will never be the same!

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@Ethan wrote

as simple as pointing your telescope and collecting photons.

How close are we to being able to record every photon that enters a telescope? In your other column you mention HR 8799. Three planets were first imaged around that star in 2008, but image processing algorithms get continually better. Using newer image processing techniques they were able to 'precover' the three planets from images obtained in 1998.

Even 10 years before the official discovery the hardware was already sufficient. Are we recording everything now? Could we conceivably start imaging new planets without reserving any telescope time but rather just getting access to archive data?

Depends. Already there, nearly. But not even the best black coating can capture every photon.

Not that every one is required.

And you need to consider the signal to noise ratio.

A excellent investment by the United States Air Force! Let's hear it for USAF R&D!

Gee, we are lucky to be around in such exciting times of discovery!