On a mountaintop in northern New South Wales sits a new telescope equipped with Australia’s largest digital camera. The Australian National University’s (ANU) SkyMapper facility has been established at Siding Spring Observatory to conduct the most comprehensive optical survey yet of the southern sky.
Fully automated, the telescope is measuring the shape, brightness and spectral type of over a billion stars and galaxies, down to one million times fainter than the eye can see.
The heart of the system is a $2.5 million, 268-megapixel digital camera that covers an area 40 times greater than the full Moon every minute. It generates 100 megabytes of data each second, and this huge data set is to be shared with the astronomical community and wider public.
In its first five years SkyMapper will cover the entire southern sky 36 times, revealing celestial objects that are changing or moving, such as new planets, asteroids and exploding stars. The ability to discover this activity will give Australian astronomers an edge when bidding for observing time on the world’s most important telescopes.
“Access to the new generation of giant telescopes is an extremely precious commodity,” says Brian Schmidt of the ANU’s Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics. SkyMapper has the ability to quickly find where we should be looking for the most interesting targets, he explains. “Thus SkyMapper will help us make good bids for access to the big telescopes, and help Australia remain competitive.
“SkyMapper will provide information on all of the objects that will be seen by the next generation radio telescope, ASKAP,” he adds, “a synergy that will help Australia to remain at the forefront of both optical and radio astronomy.”