LSST - changing how we do science

The LSST- the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope is a favorite topic for me. Not only will it be one of the most powerful scientific instruments ever made, data from it will be managed it a way that will change the way science is done.

Facility at night image courtesy of

In the past scientists have owned their own data. They have often built their own instruments to take that data. Given the often years of effort invested in acquiring scientific data, it's not surprising that the owners of the data want first crack at interpreting it and finding discoveries. As replicating experiments has become more difficult and equipment more expensive. Government funders of scientific work have begun to encourage and require scientist to make their raw data available to other researchers. Often there is substantial delay before the data is available, and there may be missing meta-data, and other costs that may make it impractical to reuse that data.

The LSST will generate a "movie" (1 whole sky frame every couple of days) of the entire southern hemisphere sky lasting for 10 years. Resolution will be very high resolution, 0.2 arc seconds per pixel. Images will be acquired in 6 different colors. It will be possible to set alerts that will notify researchers within minutes of a new image being taken of significant changes in any part of the sky. The LSST is not designed for a specific experiment, but rather to acquire the data for any possible experimental observation that can be done with this data.

Access to LSST data is based on an entirely new model. Those who will build and operate the LSST have no mission or funding for scientific discovery with the data. Their mission is building, operating, and making the LSST data to other scientists. This is a substantial scientific and engineering achievement in itself. The LSST will generate more data than all the astronomers in the world can handle and is likely to be a source for new discoveries for decades. A substantial part of the project will go into archiving the data in near real time and making it available to any scientist who wants it over the internet. There may be preference in access to scientists in countries which have funded the project. Some work make require hosting of the processing computers on site with the data which may involve substantial expense. Most astronomers, professional and amateur will have fast access to this vast data store.

Camera cutaway image courtesy of

The camera for the LSST is being built at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. Long ago my summer work in Experimental group B at SLAC as a physics undergraduate changed my career plan from astronomy to engineering. I'm tickled to see this work there now that my interests have returned to astronomy. Some interesting specs on the camera and the telescope:

  • 27 foot primary mirror
  • camera about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle
  • weighs over 3 tons
  • 3200 megapixels
  • 6 color switchable filter carousel
  • 15 terabytes of data a night

The LSST is scheduled to be in operation in 2022 or 2023 I'm looking forward to the day when amateur astronomers will be able to put a "The LSST is my other Telescope" sticker on their scope case.

LSST construction on the summit of Cerro Pachón courtesy of

Content created: 2017-03-01

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