Gigapixel camera to hunt asteroids

Scientists have built the world’s biggest digital camera to watch the heavens. Among other things, it will help guard the Earth against killer asteroids.

The record-breaking instrument snaps photos with a resolution of more than 1.4 billion pixels – around 200 times bigger than those taken with a typical modern megapixel home camera.

The gigapixel camera was constructed at the University of Hawaii and has been installed on a telescope called Pan-Starrs-1 on the nearby mountaintop at Haleakla, Maui.

It will be used to scan the night sky for asteroids threatening the Earth – one flew close by earlier this year – and also build a detailed catalogue of stars and galazies. When fully operational, each patch of sky visible from Hawaii will be photographed automatically at least once a week.

Pictures taken by the camera will be scrutinised by powerful computers for tiny changes indicating movement of a previously undiscovered asteroid. Other computers will combine the data from several images, calculate the orbit of the asteroid, and warn if it has any chance of colliding with Earth during the next century. As previously reported, plans are being drawn up to deal with this threat.

Astronomer John Tonry, whose team built the camera, said: “This is a truly giant instrument. It allows us to measure the brightness of the sky in 1.4 billion places simultaneously. It’s also extremely sensitive. In a typical observation we will be able to detect stars that are ten million times fainter than can be seen with the naked human eye.”

UK astronomers from the Universities of Durham, Edinburgh and Queen’s, Belfast, have joined the international consortium that will operate the camera.

Professor John Peacock, of Edinburgh, said: “Pan-Starrs will give us the largest ever three-dimensional picture of the universe. We are able to look back in time to the origins of all structures from galaxies down to stars and planets. The next few years should be really exciting.”

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