The Pan-STARRS Survey: A Cosmic Census

In 2000, IFA astronomers Nick Kaiser, John Tonry, and Gerry Luppino published a scientific paper arguing that wide-field imaging was best done from modest sized telescopes fitted with very large cameras. This idea led to the Panoramic Survey Telescope And Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS), which was commissioned in 2008 on Haleakala, Maui.

The observatory, equipped with a 1.8-meter telescope, contains a 1.4 billion pixel digital camera, the largest ever built.

This view of the entire sky visible from Hawai‘i by the Pan-STARRS1 telescope is the result of about 400,000 exposures, each an average of 45 seconds, taken over a period of four years. If printed at full resolution, it would be the size of Honolulu’s Ala Wai Golf Course. Credit: PS1SC

In December 2016, Pan-STARRS1 released the world’s largest digital sky survey, a vast cosmic directory of stars, galaxies, asteroids, and other objects captured over four years and 500,000 exposures. It covered almost all of the sky visible from Hawai‘i amounting to three quarters of the Universe.

Observations of each patch of sky were repeated at least 12 times with the goal of finding moving, transient, and variable objects including asteroids that could potentially threaten Earth. Images were made with five different wavelength filters to reveal the colors of each object.

Digital sky surveys require extremely large computer storage and a highly skilled software team to make the data useful. Specialized software is used to detect moving objects like asteroids and comets. Pan-STARRS now leads the world in finding them.

The Pan-STARRS team anticipates that scientists, students and even diligent amateur astronomers around the world will use the wealth of data from the survey to make many new discoveries about the Universe.

“Pan-STARRS1 has made discoveries from Near Earth Objects (NEOs) and Kuiper Belt Objects in the Solar System to lonely planets between the stars; it has mapped the dust in three dimensions in our Galaxy and found new streams of stars; it has found new kinds of exploding stars and distant quasars in the early Universe,” —  Ken Chambers