The Large Synoptic Survey Telescopebwillman | August 15, 2010
Lots of Haverford astronomy news to report, but I’m just going to focus on the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) project and its role at Haverford for this post. The LSST is a ~ $500 million optical survey telescope that is in its design, development, and construction phase. It will be an 8m telescope that will have a camera with a 10 square degree field of view. This telescope will live in Cerro Pachon, Chile and is expected to begin survey operations in 2018. This survey of the sky will be groundbreaking in many ways; I will only highlight a couple. With the ~1000 visits (combined over all filters, after 10 years) to all locations in the Southern sky, this survey will be the only one that can generate a deep map of a large fraction of sky in the time domain: LSST will make a movie of the sky (I think that is a Tony Tyson quote, but I can’t remember). With so many visits, LSST will also provide the deepest and most sensitive map of half of the celestial hemisphere reasonably possible from the ground at optical wavelengths. And…. (drumroll)… all of the data will be public immediately, enabling professional astronomers, enthusiasts, teachers and students anywhere to participate in ground breaking reasearch.
I’ve just returned from an All Hands Meeting for this project in my capacity as co-chair of the Milky Way and Local Volume Structure science collaboration. The meeting was at a Ritz-Carlton resort outside of Tucson, AZ. I now understand why Ritz-Carlton has such a good reputation: the hotel, service, food, and setting were all completely fantastic. I couldn’t get over it the entire time. Lucky for me, the science and professional company were also unbeatable. Its been an amazing experience to participate in the development phase of LSST, an exciting project that I strongly believe in. One reason that I am so excited about the LSST project is the impact it will have on the science that I work on – near-field cosmology using resolved stellar populations in the local universe. The stellar density, proper motion, and photometric chemical abundance maps that LSST will enable will be transformative for this field.
A big topic of chatter during this meeting was the impending August 13 release of the results of the Decadal Survey of astronomy. From the American Astronomical Society’s email to members this week: “It is difficult to overemphasize the importance to our discipline of the decadal survey recommendations. Congress, the White House, and the funding agencies applaud us for undertaking this effort, and they will use our community priorities to allocate federal resources to astronomy and astrophysics projects.” I returned August 13 to Haverford on a redeye flight so had to miss out watching the live webcast of the survey results with my LSST colleagues … which is too bad because LSST was ranked as the top priority for large, ground-based astronomy projects for the next decade!
This brings me to the role my involvement with LSST has been playing at Haverford. (This post is long already, so I won’t talk about research outside the classroom). In all of the classes I teach, I bring my experience doing survey science (both Sloan Digital Sky Survey and LSST). My first year and sophomore students use Galaxy Zoo, a citizen science project using SDSS data. I write some LSST inspired calculations for my sophomore level, calc-based class for astro and astrophysics majors. The biggest impact is in my Galactic Astronomy class for junior and senior majors. A large portion of the credit for this class is in the form of a research project. The first time I taught this class, I had all students either use SDSS data to study the Milky Way or develop a science case for LSST along the lines of the Science Book that the collaboration was writing at the time. They wrote their results in a paper and presented their results in a workshop style format. I used this opportunity to teach students how to do research while also teaching them about the process of developing a large scientific project. This Spring, I will have all of my students do their research projects on LSST science. The current plan is to have them all analyze different aspects of the growing simulated data that are available for LSST. This will be an awesome way for them to be involved with this developing project, and I think the top ranking bestowed upon LSST will help to inspire the students even more.
I’ll post soon about Haverford’s new telescope resources, so stay tuned for that!