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January 18, 2012

Astronomers Leverage “Unprecedented” Data Set

Datanami Staff

In the fashion of releasing data sets of unprecedented size and scope, Caltech and University of Arizona researchers announced that they’ve collected and released the largest data set in history that tracks the illumination of celestial objects—two hundred million of them, to be exact.

To arrive at their record-sized data collection, the team used the Catalina Real-Time Transient Survey to search for dynamic celestial objects—a task that produced an incredible amount of data on its own. According to one researcher on the project, “Exploring variable objects and transient phenomena like stellar explosions is one of the most vibrant and growing research areas in astrophysics. In many cases, this yields unique information needed to understand these objects.”

As Caltech reported, the new data set is based on observations taken with the 0.7-meter telescope on Mt. Bigelow in Arizona. “The observations were part of the Catalina Sky Survey (CSS), a search for Near-Earth Objects (NEOs)—asteroids that may pose a threat to Earth—conducted by astronomers at the University of Arizona.”

According to the team, “By repeatedly taking pictures of large swaths of the sky and comparing these images to previous ones, the CRTS is able to monitor the brightness of about half a billion objects, allowing it to search for those that dramatically brighten or dim. In this way, the CRTS team identified tens of thousands of variables, maximizing the science that can be gleaned from the original data.”

The new data set contains the so-called brightness histories of a total of two hundred million stars and other objects, incorporating over 20 billion independent measurements. “This set of objects is an order of magnitude larger than the largest previously available data sets of their kind,” says Andrew Drake, a scientist at Caltech. “It will enable many interesting studies by the entire astronomical community.”

The researchers point to direct value from all this data about the brightening and dimming of objects like asteroids, exploding stars and other flashes in the celestial pan. They note that these events, and the associated tracking of their illumination cycles, will let scientists better understand the evolution of stars and their lifecycles and could shed light on space mysteries like black holes and the structure of galaxies. The scientists behind the massive data collection effort also note that the discovery of dark energy wouldn’t have been possible without having ways to understand these celestial objects.

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