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Camera Scans Sky for Killers
Sep 2007
MAUI, Hawaii, Sept. 4, 2007 -- A gigapixel camera that can see stars millions of times fainter than are visible to the naked eye has been installed on the Pan-STARRS-1 (PS1) telescope on Halekala, Maui, to scan the skies for "killer" asteroids and other objects that might pose a danger to Earth.

The advanced digital camera -- the largest in the world -- was built at the University of Hawaii at Manoa's Institute for Astronomy (IfA) in Honolulu. The full observatory will consist of four 1.8-meter diameter optical systems that will be aimed at the same point in the sky, and each telescope will be equipped with its own gigapixel camera.

Pan-STARRS' primary purpose is to discover and characterize Earth-approaching objects, both asteroids and comets, that might pose a danger to the planet, but astronomers are also expecting its wide-field imaging capability to be used to create the most comprehensive catalog of the stars and galaxies available to date. Pan-STARRSGuys.jpg
Institute for Astronomy electronics engineer Peter Onaka (left) and astronomer John Tonry assemble the Pan-STARRS gigapixel camera. (Photos by Richard Wainscoat)
"This is a truly giant instrument," said astronomer John Tonry, who led the team that developed the new camera. "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."

The camera is a key component of the Pan-STARRS (Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System) 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.
The Pan-STARRS gigapixel camera.
The silicon chips at the heart of the camera were developed in collaboration with Lincoln Laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They contain advanced circuitry that makes instantaneous corrections for any image shake caused by Earth's turbulent atmosphere. 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 4000 separate regions in this way has three advantages, according to the scientists: 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.
John Tonry inspects the Pan-STARRS gigapixel camera.
So much data will be produced by the camera that the team in Manoa has had to develop novel ways to handle the deluge. Electronics engineer Peter Onaka led the team that designed an ultrafast 480-channel control system, while a group led by astronomer Eugene Magnier developed the software that is able to 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 magnificent achievement by IfA scientists and engineers. The Pan-STARRS project will revolutionize many areas of astronomy," said IfA Director Rolf-Peter Kudritzki.

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A light-tight box that receives light from an object or scene and focuses it to form an image on a light-sensitive material or a detector. The camera generally contains a lens of variable aperture and a shutter of variable speed to precisely control the exposure. In an electronic imaging system, the camera does not use chemical means to store the image, but takes advantage of the sensitivity of various detectors to different bands of the electromagnetic spectrum. These sensors are transducers...
digital camera
A camera that converts a collected image into pixels that are black or white digital or shades of gray. The digital data may then be manipulated to enhance or otherwise modify the resulting viewed image.
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
An afocal optical device made up of lenses or mirrors, usually with a magnification greater than unity, that renders distant objects more distinct, by enlarging their images on the retina.
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