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Bill Gates gives $10m to probe the universe

Large Synoptic Survey Telescope donation

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Bill Gates has donated $10m to the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) - an 8.4 metre beast boasting the world's largest digital camera designed to capture the entire available night sky every three days, "opening a movie-like window on objects that change or move on rapid timescales".

The gift compliments another $20m from the Charles Simonyi Fund for Arts and Sciences, all of which should see the telescope functional atop Cerro Pachón in northern Chile by 2014.

Donald Sweeney, LSST project manager, said: "The LSST will be the world's most powerful survey telescope. This major gift keeps the project on schedule by enabling the early fabrication of LSST's large optics and other long-lead components of the LSST system."

LSST director J Anthony Tyson, of the University of California, Davis, chipped in with: "This support from Charles Simonyi and Bill Gates will lead to a transformation in the way we study the Universe. By mapping the visible sky deeply and rapidly, the LSST will let everyone experience a novel view of our Universe and permit exciting new questions in a variety of areas of astronomy and fundamental physics."

The LSST team is hoping to capture "exploding supernovae, potentially hazardous near-Earth asteroids, and distant Kuiper Belt Objects", as well as using its observations to "trace billions of remote galaxies and measure the distortions in their shapes produced by lumps of Dark Matter, providing multiple tests of the mysterious Dark Energy".

Once operational, the LSST's three large mirrors plus three refractive lenses in a 3200 Megapixel camera will offer a 10 square degree field-of-view with "excellent image quality", according to the blurb (pdf).

It continues: "Over 10 years of operations, about 2,000 deep exposures will be acquired for every part of the sky over 20,000 square degrees. This colour 'movie' of the Universe will open an entirely new window: the time domain."

Those of you who like your data big will be pleased to learn that LSST will generate "30 Terabytes of data per night, yielding a total database of 150 Petabytes".

Agreeably, all of the collected data will be made available to "the community at large with no proprietary restrictions". Bill Gates described the project as "a shared resource for all humanity - the ultimate network peripheral device to explore the universe", further enthusing: "LSST is just as imaginative in its technology and approach as it is with its science mission. LSST is truly an internet telescope, which will put terabytes of data each night into the hands of anyone that wants to explore it. Astronomical research with LSST becomes a software issue - writing code and database queries to mine the night sky and recover its secrets."

There's still a way to go before you can get your hands on the secrets of the universe, however. The latest cash injection will specifically allow work to proceed on constructing the LSST's three large mirrors, as Sweeney suggested. Work on two of these has just begun at the Mirror Laboratory at the University of Arizona in Tucson - a labour of five years. ®

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