Sunday, February 12, 2006

Drinking the Sky from a Firehose

I just got back from Capricon, a Chicago-area SF convention. The science/space programming was excellent this year. I had to miss part of the talk on Pan STARRS, but what I did hear and what's online is extremely exciting for anyone interested in the solar system.

Pan STARRS is a survey system using advanced orthogonal charge transfer CCD detectors. It exploits the increasing power and economy of electronics to do things that would have been inconceivable a few years ago. At full size it will use four 1.8 meter mirrors, each equiped with a 1.4 gigapixel camera. The imagers will be designed to do real time active image correction electronically, by shifing the image back and forth in two dimensions. The system will scan the entire sky visible from its site in Hawaii three times per month, reaching 24 mag in each single image over a 30 second integration. By stacking images over several years, the survey will be able to go beyond 29 magnitude.

Among the scientific results expected:

  • In its first month of observing, Pan STARRS will more than double the number of known asteroids. After several years, the number of discovered asteroids will reach about 10 million.
  • All NEOs down to a few hundred meters in diameter will be found. If any are possibly going to hit Earth soon, we'll know.
  • Roughly 20,000 Kuiper Belt Objects are expected to be found (vs. less than 1000 today).
  • PS can detect a body like Pluto out to 300 AU, Earth out to 600 AU, Neptune out to 1200 AU and Jupiter (or heavier) out to 2000 AU. PS will resolve the question of whether there is a planet X anywhere near the existing solar system (bodies like Sedna suggest there may be something heavy out there.)
  • PS should detect about 1 interstellar comet per year. These are comets that originated in some other solar system and were then ejected into interstellar space, a fate that befell about 90% of the comets in our early solar system as well.
  • Determine the position and distance of all stars within 100 parsecs of Earth visible from the site.
  • Find roughly 100 extrasolar planets by occultation.
  • Detect all Andromeda-size galaxies in the universe that are visible from Hawaii, all the way back to the start of galaxy formation more than 12 billion years ago.

I can't wait to start seeing the results from this. Their prototype telescope (with only one mirror and camera) should begin operating this year.


Blogger Juan Suros said...

This sounds fantastic! Looks like the size of the NEA problem will be known in a few years. At the same time, having a list of every NEA gives us the ability to pick the best times/trajectoried for investigating & exploiting them.

I like the analogy of NEA exploitation to the exploitation of the Canary Islands at the beginning of the European age of Exploration (15th Century). The one was and the other has the potential to be relatively easy first steps whose financial success financed/will finance the beginning of large exploratory movements in history.

12:54 PM  

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