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Fermilab | Batavia, IL | USA

View Blog | Read Bio

Years of Fermilab computing work build base for stunning SDSS image

Top left image shows SDSS-III's view of a small part of the sky, centered on the galaxy Messier 33. The middle top picture is a zoomed-in image on M33, showing the spiral arms of this galaxy, including the blue knots of intense star formation. The top right-hand image shows a further zoomed-in image of M33 highlighting one of the largest areas of intense star formation in that galaxy. Credit: SDSS

The world’s largest, digital, color image of the night sky became public this month. It provides a stunning image and research fodder for scientists and science enthusiasts, thanks to the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which has a long connection to Fermilab.

Oh, yeah, and the image is  free.

The image, which would require 500,000 high-definition TVs to view in its full resolution, is comprised of data collected since the start of the survey in 1998.

“This image provides opportunities for many new scientific  discoveries in the years to come,” said Bob Nichol, SDSS-III scientific spokesperson and professor at University of Portsmouth.

Fermilab oversaw all image processing and distribution of data to researchers and the public from 1998 through 2008, for the first seven batches of data. These batches make up a large chunk of the ground-breaking more than a trillion-pixel image. The eighth batch of raw, reduced data, which was released along with the image at the 17th annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle was processed by Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory. LBNL, New York University and Johns Hopkins University distributed that data. Fermilab’s SDSS collaboration members now focus solely on analysis.

“This is one of the biggest bounties in the history of science,” said Mike Blanton, professor from New York University and leader of the data archive work in SDSS-III, the third phase of SDSS.  “This data will be a legacy for the ages, as previous ambitious sky surveys like the Palomar Sky Survey of the 1950s are still being used today. We expect the SDSS data to have that sort of shelf life.”

The release expands the sky coverage of SDSS to include a  sizable view of the south galactic pole. Previously, SDSS only imaged small, spread out slivers of the southern sky. Increasing coverage of the southern sky will aid the Dark Energy Survey and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope both southern sky surveys that Fermilab participates in.

Comparing the two portions of the sky also will help astrophysicists pinpoint any asymmetries in the type or number of large structures, such as galaxies. Cosmic-scale solutions to Albert Einstein’s equations of general
relativity assume that the universe is spherically symmetric, meaning that on a large enough scale, the universe would look the same in every direction.

Finding asymmetry would mean the current understanding of the universe is wrong and turn the study of cosmology on its head, much as the discovery of particles not included in the Standard Model would do for collider physics.

“We would have to rethink our understanding of cosmology,” said Brian Yanny, Fermilab’s lead scientists on SDSS-III. So far the universe seems symmetric.

Whether the SDSS data reveals asymmetry or not it undoubtedly will continue to provide valuable insight into our universe and fascinate amateur astronomers and researchers.

Every year since the start of the survey, at least one paper about the SDSS has made it in the list of the top 10 astronomy papers of the year. More than 200,000 people have classified galaxies from their home computers using SDSS data and projects including Galaxy Zoo and Galaxy Zoo 2.

In the three months leading up to the image’s release a record number of queries, akin to click counts on a Web page,  occurred on the seventh batch of data. During that time, 90 terabytes of pictures and sky catalogues were down loaded by  scientists and the public. That equates to about 150,000 one-hour long CDs.

Scientists will continue to use the old data and produce papers from it for years to come. Early data also works as a check on the new data to make sure camera or processing flaws didn’t produce data anomalies.

“We still see, for instance, data release six gets considerable hits and papers still come out on that in 100s per year,” Yanny said.

So far, SDSS data has been used to discover nearly half a billion astronomical objects, including asteroids, stars, galaxies and distant quasars. This new  eighth batch of data promises even more discoveries.

Fermilab passed the job of data processing and distribution on to others in 2008. The eight batch of data was processed by Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory and distributed by LBNL, New York University and Johns Hopkins University.

Fermilab’s four remaining SDSS collaboration members now focuses solely

illustration of the concept of baryon acoustic oscillations, which are imprinted in the early universe and can still be seen today in galaxy surveys like BOSS. Credit: Chris Blake and Sam Moorfield and SDSS.

on analysis. They are expected to produce a couple dozen papers during the next few years. The group touches on all of SDSS-III’s four sky surveys but focus mainly on the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey, or BOSS, which will map the 3-D distribution of 1.5 million luminous red galaxies.

“BOSS is closest to our scientists’ interests because its science goals are to understand dark energy and dark matter and the evolution of the universe,” Yanny said.

For more information see the following:

* Larger images of the SDSS maps in the northern and southern galactic hemispheres are available here and here.

*Sloan’s YouTube channel provides a 3-D visualization of the universe.

*Technical journal papers describing DR8
and the SDSS-III project can be found on the arXiv e-Print server.

*EarthSky has a good explanation of what the colors in the images represent and how SDSS part of an on-going tradition of sky surveys.

*The Guardian newspaper has a nice article explaining all the detail that can be seen in the image.

— Tona Kunz

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