Scientists focus on revealing hidden mysteries of the Universe

Secrets of the Universe are to be revealed as a new telescope equipped with the world’s most powerful digital camera begins its observations of the night sky.

The Pan-STARRS sky survey telescope — known as PS1 — will enable scientists to better understand the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy, the material that is thought to account for much of the mass of the universe but has never been proven to exist.

Astronomers from the Universities of Durham, Edinburgh and Queen’s University Belfast together with researchers from around the world are using the telescope to scan the skies from dusk to dawn each night.

PS1’s 1400 megapixel camera is the world’s largest — with about 150 times as many pixels as the average camera. It is able to gather detailed images of almost three-quarters of the night sky from its base in Hawaii. The project will enable scientists to assess wide areas of sky at a level of detail that was previously impossible.

Scientists believe the device, which was built by the University of Hawaii, will provide vital clues into the nature of dark energy and dark matter. They hope to use images of galaxies to validate Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which predicts that light can bend around an object in space — such as dark matter — because it is pulled towards the object by gravity.

The telescope, which took more than a decade to develop, will also pinpoint new supernovae — stellar explosions — as well as near-earth asteroids. It is also able to track fast-moving objects and exploding stars across nearly the whole sky.

Powerful computers will process the data from the telescope, which is expected to generate enough information over the three-year project to fill the equivalent of several thousand PCs.

Professor Carlos Frenk of Durham University, the UK’s member on the Pan-STARRS board, said: “PS1 will generate the largest ever multi-colour survey of the cosmos. Alongside supercomputer simulations of the universe, these data will help us understand the life cycles of galaxies and, if we are very lucky, the nature of the mysterious dark matter and dark energy that control the evolution of our cosmos.”

Professor Stephen Smartt of Queen’s University Belfast and Chair of the Pan-STARRS Science Council, said: “The huge camera lets us map about one-sixth of the sky every month, in five different colours. We compare every image with one taken previously and try to track everything that either moves or flashes. Already we have discovered hundreds of supernovae, some of them the most luminous explosions known.”

Professor Alan Heavens of the University of Edinburgh said: “Pan-STARRS has immense potential for mapping the distribution of matter in the Universe, even the unseen dark matter. Our goal is to do this over the majority of the sky for the first time — but there are still big challenges ahead for us.”

Development of Pan-STARRS — Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System — has been funded by the US Air Force. Also involved in the project are the University of Hawaii, the Pan-STARRS Project Office, the Max-Planck Society, John Hopkins University, Baltimore, the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network, the National Central University of Taiwan and the Ogden Trust.

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