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World's Largest Digital Camera Installed on Pan STARRS-1 Telescope

Washington, Sept. 2 -- Astronomers have installed the world's largest and most advanced digital camera on the Pan STARRS-1 (PS 1) telescope on Haleakala, Maui.

Built at the University of Hawaii at Manoa's Institute for Astronomy in Honolulu, the gigapixel camera will capture images that will be used to scan the skies for killer asteroids.

It will be also used to create the most comprehensive catalogue of stars and galaxies ever produced, said leader of the project, astronomer John Tonry.

"This is a truly giant instrument. It allows us to measure the brightness of the sky in 1.4 billion places simultaneously. We get an image that is 38,000 by 38,000 pixels in size, or about 200 times larger than you get in a high-end consumer digital camera. It's also extremely sensitive: in a typical observation we will be able to detect stars that are 10 million times fainter than can be seen with the naked human eye," said Tonry.

He said the camera is a key component of the Pan-STARRS project, which is designed to search the sky for objects that move or vary.

When fully operational, each patch of sky visible from Hawaii will be photographed automatically at least once a week. Powerful computers at the Maui High Performance Computer Center will scrutinize each image for the minuscule changes that could signal a previously undiscovered asteroid.

Other computers will combine the data from several images, calculate the orbit of the asteroid, and send warning messages if the asteroid has any chance of colliding with Earth during the next century, said Tonry.

MIT researchers, who developed the silicon chips at the heart of the camera, said the chips contain advanced circuitry that makes instantaneous corrections for any image shake caused by Earth's turbulent atmosphere.

According to a release by the Institute for Astronomy, University of Hawaii, the image area, which is about 16 inches (40 cm) across, contains 60 identical silicon chips, each of which contains 64 independent imaging circuits.

Splitting the image area into about 4,000 separate regions in this way has three advantages: data can be recorded more quickly, "dazzling" of the image by a very bright star is confined to a small region, and any defects in the chips only affect only a small part of the image area.

According to the statement, the scientists also had to design an ultrafast 480-channel control system to handle the deluge of data generated by the camera.

Electronics engineer Peter Onaka led the team that designed this control system, while a group led by astronomer Eugene Magnier developed the software that will analyze the thousands of gigabytes of data that the camera will produce each night.

"This camera is an incredibly complex instrument, and getting it working has been a magnificient achievement by IfA scientists and engineers. The Pan-STARRS project will revolutionize many areas of astronomy," said IfA Director Rolf-Peter Kudritzki.

Published by HT Media Ltd. with permission from Asian News International.

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