5-year, 2-petabyte digital survey of the night sky is the largest ever released

Astronomers have a powerful new resource in the Pan-STARRS survey of the night sky, carried out over five years and half a million exposures from the top of Mauna Kea on Maui. The two petabytes of data released publicly today cover three quarters of the night sky and show billions of stars, galaxies, asteroids and other stellar objects.

This isn’t the kind of imagery you print out and put on the wall, although the picture above, which shows the whole survey space in visible light, is quite cool. Think of images from Hubble and the like to be like extreme telephoto portraits of individual features, while this is an ultra wide-angle shot of our whole cosmic neighborhood. In fact, it’s thousands of them layered over one another.

These repeated observations over time are useful for tracking near-earth objects, bright but brief events and large-scale features. Pan-STARRS has found dozens of asteroids and quasars, and is helping define things like the mysterious “cold spot” in our universe’s cosmic microwave background. Some of the project’s successes are described in this (slightly out of date) PDF.

Pan-STARRS1 Observatory“Pan-STARRS has already made discoveries from Near Earth Objects and Kuiper Belt Objects in the Solar System to lonely planets between the stars,” said the University of Hawaii’s Ken Chambers, director of the project’s observatories, in a news release. “It has mapped the dust in three dimensions in our galaxy and found new streams of stars; and it has found new kinds of exploding stars and distant quasars in the early Universe.”

This release is the “static sky,” which is averaged values over the five years of observations, but a second, larger data set will come out next year with more temporal granularity. If you know what you’re looking for, you can find how to call it up at the Pan-STARRS webpage.