Pan-STARRS1 Observatory atop Haleakala, Maui, at sunset (photo by Rob Ratkowski)

In December, the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy announced the public release of the world’s largest digital sky survey through the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI). Starting in 2010, the Pan-STARRS1 (Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System) Observatory atop the Haleakalā dormant volcano in Hawaii took a half a million exposures of billions of stars and galaxies over four years. The resulting view, if printed at its full resolution, would stretch one and a half miles long.

The survey’s two petabytes of data are comparable, the university states, “to one billion selfies, or one hundred times the total content of Wikipedia.” Dr. Ken Chambers, director of the Pan-STARRS Observatories, stated in the release:

Pan-STARRS has made discoveries from Near Earth Objects and Kuiper Belt Objects in the Solar System to lonely planets between the stars; 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.

Compressed view of the entire sky visible from Hawaii by the Pan-STARRS1 Observatory, involving half a million exposures, each about 45 seconds in length, taken over a period of 4 years (courtesy Danny Farrow, Pan-STARRS1 Science Consortium and Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestial Physics)

Now, researchers, students, and armchair astronomers around the world can make their own discoveries from this incredible view of the cosmos. Hawaii, being isolated in the Pacific Ocean, has less air and light pollution, and thus offers a clearer view of outer space than many other areas on Earth. The arc-like shape of the Milky Way in front of billions of stars and galaxies in the image above is from the exposures being mapped into a celestial sphere.

Dennis Overbye noted in the New York Times that although this is the largest digital mapping effort to date, it will almost certainly be followed by others, including the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope in Chile expected to be completed in 2022. It will spend 10 years surveying 37 billion galaxies and stars.

The Pan-STARRS1 survey is being shared in two phases, with the first now available. Considering that in the 19th century scientists worked with glass plate photographs of the moon and stars, and less successful methods like August Strindberg’s exposed photographic plate “Celestographs,” this new visual data is a milestone in the ongoing understanding of our universe. Below, you can hear astronomers discuss the significance of this census of our night sky.

Access the data from the digital sky survey online at Pan-STARRS

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...