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Largest digital survey of the sky mapped billions of stars

The Pan-STARRS astronomers released two petabytes of data to the public.
Mariella Moon, @mariella_moon
December 20, 2016
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Danny Farrow, Pan-STARRS1 Science Consortium and Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestial Physics

An international team of astronomers have released two petabytes of data from the Pan-STARRS project that's also known as the "world's largest digital sky survey." Two petabytes of data, according to the team, is equivalent to any of the following: a billion selfies, one hundred Wikipedias or 40 million four-drawer filing cabinets filled with single-spaced text. The scientists spent four years observing three-fourths of the night sky through their 1.8 meter telescope at Haleakala Observatories on Maui, Hawaii, scanning three billion objects in the Milky Way 12 times in five different filters. Those objects included stars, galaxies, asteroids and other celestial bodies.

According to Thomas Henning, director of the Planet and Star Formation Department of Max Planck Institute for Astronomy:

"Based on Pan-Starrs, researchers are able to measure distances, motions and special characteristics such as the multiplicity fraction of all nearby stars, brown dwarfs, and of stellar remnants like, for example white dwarfs. This will expand the census of almost all objects in the solar neighbourhood to distances of about 300 light-years. The Pan Starrs data will also allow a much better characterization of low-mass star formation in stellar clusters. Furthermore, we gathered about 4 million stellar light curves to identify Jupiter-like planets in close orbits around cool dwarf stars in order to constrain the fraction of such extrasolar planetary systems."

While the immensity of two petabytes of data is already hard to grasp, that isn't the extent of the team's observations. The astronomers are rolling out their research in two steps: this one called the "Static Sky" is the average of each individual scan. See the image above? That's the result of half a million 45-second exposures taken over four years. They're releasing even more detailed images and data in 2017 -- for now, you can check out what the team released to the public on the official Pan-STARRS website.

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