Twenty-Five Astronomical Observations That Changed the World: And How To Make Them Yourself

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That was a big shift in how astronomers do research. Conti: Well, GALEX as a whole produced 20 terabytes of data, and that's actually not that large todayin fact it's tiny compared to the instruments that are coming, which are going to make these interfaces even more important. We have telescopes coming that are going to produce petabytes a thousand terabytes of data. Already, it's difficult to download a terabyte; a petabyte would be, not impossible, but certainly an enormous waste of bandwidth and time.

Galileo developed one of the first telescopes

It's like me telling you to download part of the Internet and search it yourself, instead of just using Google. Would something like the exoplanet-hunting Kepler Space Telescope have been possible with the data mining and data storage capacities of twenty years ago? Conti: Well, Kepler is an extraordinary mission for many reasons. Technologically, it would not have been possible even just a few years ago. Kepler measures the light of , stars very precisely at regular intervals looking for these dips in light that indicate a planet is present. The area that they sample is not very largeit's a small patch of skybut they're sampling all of those stars every thirty minutes.

So that's already a huge breakthrough, and it creates a lot of data, but it's still not as much as a whole sky mission like GALEX. What's different about Kepler, from a data perspective, is that it's opening up the time domain. It sits there and it doesn't really change, unless we get a new dump of data that helps us refine it, and that may only happen once a year.


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With Kepler you have these very short intervals for data collection, where you have new images every thirty minutes. That really opens up the time domain. We're working hard to figure out how to efficiently analyze time domain data. And of course the results are spectacular: a few years ago we had less than twenty exoplanets, and now we have thousands. Is there a new generation of telescopes coming that will make use of these time domain techniques? Conti: Oh yes. With Kepler we've developed this ability to make close observations of objects in the sky over time, but if you add millions or even billions of objects, then you get into the new regime of telescopes like the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope LSST which we expect to come online at the end of this decade.

These telescopes are going to take images of the whole sky every three days or so; with that kind of data you can actually make movies of the whole sky. You can point to a place in the sky and say "there was nothing there the other day, but today there's a supernova. And we don't have to wait that long; ALMA , the Atacama Large Millimeter Array is going to have its first data release very soon and its raw data is something like forty terabytes a day.

Then in , we're going to have the Square Kilometre Array SKA , the most sensitive radio instrument ever built, and we expect it will produce more data than we have on the entire Internet nowand that's in a single year.

He helped created modern astronomy

This is all being driven by the effect that Moore's Law has on these detectors; these systematic advances let us keep packing in more and more pixels. In my view, we've reached the point where storage is no longer the issue. You can buy disk, you can buy storage, and I think that at some point we may even have a cloud for astronomy that can host a lot of this data. The problem is how long it's going to take me to get a search answer out of these massive data sets. How long will I have to wait for it?

Conti: I think so. The original Galaxy Zoo was a galaxy classification project, where volunteers could log on to the server and help to classify galaxies by shape. Galaxy shapes give you a lot of information about their formation history; for instance, round galaxies are much more likely to have cannibalized other galaxies in a merger, and on average they're a little older.

Spiral galaxies are structures that need time to evolve; generally, they're a little younger than round galaxies. And so when you have thousands of ordinary, non-scientists classifying these galaxies you can get some great statistics in a short period of time. You can get the percentage of round galaxies, elliptical galaxies, spiral galaxies, irregular galaxies and so forth; you can get some really interesting information back. What's great about citizen science is that you can feed images to citizens that have only been fed through machinesno human eyes have ever looked at them.

There's another citizen science project that I'm trying to get started in order to to make use of all the old GALEX data. With GALEX we took these whole sky images in ultraviolet, and we did it at certain intervals, so there is a time domain at work, even if it's not as rapid as the Kepler. But as I said before, we have over three hundred million sources of UV light in these images. There was a professor who had a graduate student looking at this data at different intervals with the naked eye, and they were able to find four hundred stars that seemed to be pulsating over time.

When I saw the data, I said "this is interesting, but it should be an algorithm.

Twenty-Five Astronomical Observations That Changed the World : And How to Make Them Yourself

And of course, this is just the first pass at this; who knows how many of those candidates will convert. But it's an illustrative casethe idea is to feed these kinds of projects to the next generation of citizen scientists, and to have them to do what that graduate student did, and then in some cases they'll be able to find something remarkable, something that otherwise might never have been found.

Can we talk about image-processing? What percentage of Hubble images are given the kind of treatment that you see with really iconic shots like the Sombrero Galaxy or the Pillars of Creation? Conti: It depends.


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There's an image coming out for the 22nd anniversary of the Hubble here in a few days, and as you'll be able to see, it's a very beautiful image. I'm a little biased in the sense that I tend to think that every image from the Hubble is iconic, but they aren't all treated equally. There's a group of people here in the office of public outreach at STScI that think a lot about how images are released.

But if you go back to the Hubble Deep Field, or even earlier, you can see that the imaging team really does put a lot of care into every Hubble image. And that's not because each one of those images is iconic; rather it's because we have this instrument that is so unbelievable and each piece of data it produces is precious, and so a lot of work goes into communicating that. And now, with the Hubble Legacy Archive, people can produce their own Hubble images, with new colors, and they can do it on the fly.

Conti: Kind of, yeah. As you know, all data in astronomy is monochrome datait's black and whiteand then the processing team combines it into layers of red, green and blue, and so forth. Zolt Levay, the head of the imaging team, takes these colored layers and combines them and tries to make them as accurate as possible in terms of how they would look to the human eye, or to a slightly more sensitive eye.

This program lets you take three monochrome images, which you can then make any color you like, and it let's you make them into a single beautiful image. There's actually a contest being held by the office of public outreach to see who can upload the most beautiful new image. More recently, this has come to mean the second full Moon in a single calendar month. Celestial Coordinates A grid system for locating things in the sky.

Star Crash: The Explosion that Transformed Astronomy

Declination and right ascension are the celestial equivalents of latitude and longitude. Circumpolar Denotes an object near a celestial pole that never dips below the horizon as Earth rotates and thus does not rise or set.

Collimation Aligning the optical elements of a telescope so that they all point in the proper direction. Most reflectors and compound telescopes require occasional collimation in order to produce the best possible images. When close to the Sun, the warmth evaporates the ice in the nucleus to form a coma cloud of gas and a tail.

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Glossary of Astronomy | Astronomy Terms & Names

Named for their discoverers, comets sometimes make return visits after as little as a few years or as long as tens of thousands of years. Compound Telescope A telescope with a mirror in the back and a lens in the front. Conjunction When the Moon or a planet appears especially close either to another planet or to a bright star.

Constellation A distinctive pattern of stars used informally to organize a part of the sky. There are 88 official constellations, which technically define sections of the sky rather than collections of specific stars. Culmination The moment when a celestial object crosses the meridian and is thus at its highest above the horizon. Dark adaptation is rapid during the first 5 or 10 minutes after you leave a well-lit room, but full adaptation requires at least a half hour — and it can be ruined by a momentary glance at a bright light.

Declination Dec. The celestial equivalent of latitude, denoting how far in degrees an object in the sky lies north or south of the celestial equator. Dobs provide more aperture per dollar than any other telescope design. Double Star Binary Star Two stars that lie very close to, and are often orbiting, each other. Many stars are multiples doubles, triples, or more gravitationally bound together.

Usually such stars orbit so closely that they appear as a single point of light even when viewed through professional telescopes. Earthshine Sunlight reflected by Earth that makes the otherwise dark part of the Moon glow faintly. Eccentricity The measure of how much an orbit deviates from being circular. Eclipse An event that occurs when the shadow of a planet or moon falls upon a second body.