Al Jazeera’s Frederick Bernas reports on how observational astronomy in Chile may, if handled correctly, spark a technological and economic boom in that country.
The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), scheduled to begin construction this year, is a 3.2-billion-pixel camera that shoots “a colour movie of the universe”.
It will create the largest public data set in the world – a complete map of the sky that enables astronomers to conduct detailed investigations without telescope access.
“This will start a new era – some people call it the democratisation of astronomy,” said Chris Smith of Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, a hallowed institution that includes the world’s largest camera.
“Astronomers will use the digital maps for digging information, with less observing time, and then develop follow-up projects with real telescopes,” he told Al Jazeera.
At the University of Chile in Santiago, the National Laboratory for High Performance Computing was opened in 2010 to develop methods for managing these huge volumes, as well as to educate a new generation of experts that will meet surging demand.
“This is the astronomic equivalent of genome research,” said Eduardo Vera, the laboratory’s director. “The data will be too big to handle – that’s why you need algorithms, just like what Google is doing with the internet.”
Every night, 20-30 terabytes of data, cataloguing hundreds of transient events – such as supernovae, asteroids, comets and new stars – will arrive from the LSST on a blazing connection of one gigabyte per second, before being stored and analysed by giant supercomputers.
“Chile can become a world leader in informatics and leapfrog the competition, because this stuff is so new that we’re not following anyone,” Vera told Al Jazeera.
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