An ambitious effort to map the universe 100 times more thoroughly than ever before will be announced today by astronomers from a consortium of universities.
The project will use a new telescope that is to be built atop Apache Peak in New Mexico. The goal of the 10-year venture is to produce a three-dimensional map of 1 million galaxies and other celestial targets that will give scientists their best opportunity yet to understand the large-scale structure of the universe.
A traditional image of the sky is two-dimensional, consisting of a flat portrait that does not reveal the depth and positioning of stars that is essential to understanding how some galaxies form giant structures.
In recent years, for example, scientists have discovered collections of stars and galaxies that form a wall millions of light years long, and other astronomers have discovered that the universe appears to be made up of giant bubbles with stars and galaxies surrounding great voids.
Since the universe is commonly held to have begun with an expansionary Big Bang that should have distributed matter uniformly throughout space, scientists are struggling to explain why matter eventually evolved into the great structures now being discovered.
The new survey will also include 100,000 quasars, mysterious objects that are about the size of the solar system but emit more energy, including light, than entire galaxies. The result should be a portrait of the universe that will reveal the interrelationship and true form of various great structures.
The survey, expected to cost $14 million, "is the cosmic equivalent of a U.S. Geological Survey map," said Richard Kron, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago and director of the Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin. "It will show details of galaxy and quasar distribution as well as the ++ large scale 'geography' of the universe."
"Nobody has ever made such an elegant and detailed map of the sky," said Bruce Margon, chairman of astronomy at the University of Washington and chairman of the Astrophysical Research Consortium, which is sponsoring the project. The survey is to be conducted by scientists from the University of Chicago, the Institute for Advanced Study and Princeton University.
Other members of the consortium are New Mexico State University, Washington State University and the University of Washington. In addition, the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois is expected to provide computers and programs that will make it possible for scientists to collect and analyze 10 million megabytes of information.
The cornerstone of the project is a wide-field, 2.5-meter telescope that is to be operational by 1995. Using sophisticated electronics systems, the astronomers hope to complete the survey five to seven years after the project begins.
Most modern telescopes use light-sensitive computer chips called "charge-coupled devices" that literally count the photons of light hitting the mirror, thus greatly increasing the telescopes' sensitivity. The camera used in the survey will have 30 such sensors, the largest such array ever constructed.