Large Synoptic Survey Telescope: data-intensive research in action

Author: George Beckett
Posted: 24 May 2016 | 09:49

This is an exciting time for astronomy in the UK, a fact that is reflected by our involvement and leadership of some amazingly ambitious new telescopes.

A number of recent, significant discoveries have propelled astronomy research into the spotlight. The discovery of dark matter and dark energy at the beginning of the 21st century over-turned our understanding of how the Universe works. And the first observation of a gravitational wave earlier this year confirmed Albert Einstein’s long-standing hypothesis precisely 100 years after it was first published in his general theory of relativity.

The European Space Agency’s Euclid dark Universe programme will launch a space telescope in 2020 to answer our most pressing questions about the dark Universe. The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope, coordinated from Jodrell Bank, will be able to see back to the early Universe to the time when cosmological structures such as galaxies and stars first began to form when it commences operation in 2022. And in Chile construction is underway on the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) – the most ambitious optical telescope ever undertaken – which should “see first light” in 2019.

While the outputs of LSST will challenge astronomers for years to come, the ambition of the LSST is already creating significant challenges for the engineers and computational scientists involved in its construction and future operation. 

At the heart of the telescope sits a 3.2 Gigapixel camera (that is more than 100 times the elements of a current top-of-the-range digital camera), which is being designed in part in the UK. Thanks to this camera, the telescope will produce more than 100 Petabytes of data during a 10-year survey that will image more than half of the sky with unprecedented depth and sensitivity.

LSST:UK consortium

UK astronomers have ambitious plans for LSST to advance understanding of dark energy, to identify and study near-Earth objects, to detect and follow transient events, and to progress supernova science. To support its ambition, the community has formed a consortium called LSST:UK with representation from every astronomy department in the country and – with support from the Science Technology and Facilities Council – the consortium has secured full membership of the LSST.

LSST:UK Science Centre 

Construction progress in Chile is mirrored by scientific progress here in the UK, as scientists make their preparations in an £18 million STFC-funded project called the LSST:UK Science Centre (LUSC), with myself as project manager and technology consultant.

The pre-operations phase of LUSC, which is led by the University of Edinburgh, started in July 2015 and will run for four years. During this term, the infrastructure to host and analyse LSST data (called the Data Access Centre) will be designed and science groups will define and optimise the workflows that will be run in the Data Access Centre.

Engagement with the international community is vital during the construction phase. LSST:UK is already building strong relationships with the core teams of scientists and technologists in the United States and France. Further, we are looking towards collaboration opportunities with peer activities in Euclid, SKA, and the LHC, exploiting the UK’s unique position of being involved in all three of these programmes.

The programme of work in the lead-up to first light in 2019 is ambitious and exciting. The volume and rate of data generated by LSST will break today’s databases and analysis software, and will challenge established astronomy practices and expectations. This is data-intensive research in action.

You can also read this story on our Medium(link is external) account.


George Beckett, EPCC and LSST:UK Project Manager

Read more about the work of LSST:UK on the project website.

Image shows artist's conception of the optical elements of LSST: 3 mirrors, and 3 lenses. (Credit: LSST)

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