On the summit of Haleakala, a dormant volcano on the island of Maui in Hawaii, a telescope began clicking pictures of the night sky in 2010. Over the next four years, Pan-Starrs, short for Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System, photographed the entire sky, as seen from Hawaii, 12 times in five colors of visible and infrared light.
In December, the astronomers who operate Pan-Starrs released the first results from their survey. Their big data universe lists the positions, colors and brightness of three billion stars, galaxies and other objects. It amounts to two petabytes of data, roughly equivalent to a billion selfies, according to a statement from the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy. All this information, the universe in a box, now resides in the Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (named for Barbara A. Mikulski, the retiring Maryland senator and space champion) at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore where any astronomer can get access to it. In 2017, the Pan-Starrs team plans to produce a new catalog of how these things are moving and changing.
This was an exercise in more than just curiosity. A big goal of the project, run by an international consortium led by the University of Hawaii, is to discover moving objects like asteroids so that we can visit them and perhaps steer them away before they visit us, as well as discover supernovas and other rare violent events while they are still exploding.
Pan-Starrs is the biggest digital mapping effort yet done, but it is not the last. The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope now being built in Chile by the National Science Foundation will eventually supersede it, surveying 37 billion galaxies and stars and producing 15 terabytes of data every night for 10 years once it is completed in 2022.