UK astronomers join the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope

UK astronomers are celebrating funding to participate in the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), which will create what is being called “the greatest movie ever made”.

When completed, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) will be the world’s largest digital camera. It will be able to take images of the sky that each cover over 40 times the area of the moon, building up a survey of the entire visible sky in just three nights.

That means that billions of galaxies, stars and solar system objects will be seen for the first time and monitored over ten years, with each patch of sky being observed more than 800 times in that period. UK astronomers will now play a key part after £17.7m of initial funding from the Science and Technology Facilities Council confirmed the UK’s participation.

Steven Kahn, the LSST Director, said: “I am delighted that STFC is supporting UK participation in LSST. It is great to see UK astronomers engaging in preparation for LSST, and we look forward to seeing our collaboration develop over the coming years. LSST will be one of the foremost astronomy projects in the next decades and the UK astronomical community will contribute strongly to its success.”

“This is great news for UK astronomy. LSST has long been the missing piece in UK astronomy’s future programme, and funding by STFC for UK participation in LSST will provide our researchers with unparalleled access to the suite of major international facilities that will be coming online in the next 5-10 years”. Bob Mann, LSST:UK Project Leader, University of Edinburgh

Unprecedented detail

The telescope is being built in the Chilean Andes where conditions are some of the driest on Earth, making it the ideal position for observing. When it starts operating, the LSST will generate one of the largest scientific datasets in the world.  

The LSST is a synoptic survey in several ways: billions of objects will be imaged in six colours in an unprecedented large volume of our universe. This survey over half of the sky also records the time evolution of these sources, creating the first motion picture of our universe.

The LSST:UK Project Scientist, Sarah Bridle from the University of Manchester, said: “What is unique about LSST is that each of its images covers a large area of sky to a depth that captures faint objects, and that it takes these images really quickly. That combination of area, depth and speed means that we can do lots of different science with the same dataset. Over its ten years of operations, LSST will build up a very detailed map of billions of galaxies, with approximate distances to each, from which we will learn about the mysterious dark energy that seems to be accelerating the expansion of the Universe. But, equally, it will look for changes in the sky from night to night; both moving objects, like asteroids, and new ones, like supernovae, that appear where nothing had been seen before.”

Big Data benefits

As well as providing unprecedented scientific data, the development of LSST will help train future scientists and bring advances in computing.

“Extracting scientific knowledge from LSST will pose major challenges in the management and analysis of data. These “Big Data” issues are seen across the commercial sector as well as in science, but astronomy provides the ideal testbed for addressing them, as our data is free from the ethical and commercial constraints found in other domains. Many from the generation of young researchers who develop their skills preparing for the LSST data deluge will end up applying their expertise in business or the public sector, so the impact of UK participation in LSST will be felt well beyond astrophysics," said Bob Mann.

Edinburgh researchers are at the forefront of addressing the computational challenges posed by LSST. They are developing the Data Access Centre through which UK astronomers will analyse LSST data. This builds upon several decades of expertise in survey astronomy at Edinburgh.

“The Wide-Field Astronomy Unit at Edinburgh has been curating the largest sky survey datasets for a long time, but LSST will be a step up for us. We have just published the latest data release for the VISTA Variables in the Via Lactea (VVV) survey, which contains over 50 billion rows of data and which we believe to be currently the largest public sky survey dataset in the world. However, that pales in comparison with LSST, whose first data release in 2023 will be about forty times bigger, and which will continue to grow over the following decade. The challenge is not storing the data – bigger databases already exist in the commercial sector – but providing astronomers with the flexible access mechanisms they need to extract astrophysical knowledge from the LSST dataset, with its spatial, spectral and temporal dimensions.” Bob Mann, LSST:UK Project Leader, University of Edinburgh

Preparatory science

In addition to funding development of the Data Access Centre, STFC is also supporting a range of preparatory science being undertaken by a distributed team of researchers in six UK universities on behalf of the 36 institutions in the LSST:UK Consortium. This work is coordinated by LSST:UK Project Manager George Beckett, who is based at the University of Edinburgh.

"Many are talking about data-driven science, but LSST:UK is actually doing it. The preparatory phase in the lead-up to an operational telescope is a critical period. Acting on behalf of the whole consortium we have defined a programme of work, which the Edinburgh team will coordinate, that draws on the world-class expertise of the UK partner institutions . This will ensure that we are ready to exploit the LSST from Day 1."  George Beckett, LSST:UK Project Manager, University of Edinburgh