Bill Gates and Microsoft's most famous astronaut fund deep space telescope

Bill Gates and the Charles Simonyi Fund for Arts and Sciences this week donated $30 million to an ambitious telescope project that researchers say will be able to survey the entire sky every three nights - something never done before.

LSST image

The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) Project got $20 million from the Charles Simonyi Fund for Arts and Sciences and $10 million from Microsoft founder and chairman Bill Gates. Expected to see its "first light" in 2014, the 8.4-meter LSST will survey the entire visible sky deeply in multiple colors every week with its 3 billion-pixel digital camera, probing the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy and opening a movie-like window on objects that change or move.

With the telescope scientists will be able to quickly find Earth-threatening asteroids and exploding stars called supernovas and will be able to map out 100 billion galaxies, according to researchers.

The LSST is a public-private partnership that has been under development since 2000. The new gift enables the construction of LSST's three large mirrors, which are expected to take more than five years to manufacture. The first stages of production for the two largest mirrors are now beginning at the Mirror Laboratory at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Ariz. Other key elements of the LSST system also will be aided by the gifts.

The LSST will be constructed on Cerro Pachon, a 9,000ft mountain in northern Chile. Its design of three large mirrors and three refractive lenses in a camera leads to a 10 square degree field-of-view with excellent image quality. The telescope's 3,200-megapixel camera will be the largest digital camera ever constructed.

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 color "movie" of the universe will open an entirely new window: the time domain. LSST will produce 30 terabytes of data per night, yielding a total database of 150 petabytes. Dedicated data facilities will process the data in real time, according to a release from Penn State.

Penn State has been a member of the LSST project since fall 2005, and the Penn State Department of Astronomy is active in the development of the project's planned survey of the universe. Penn State is one of 22 universities and companies involved in the project including, Brookhaven National Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Columbia University, Google, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Johns Hopkins University, Stanford University, Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

"LSST is truly an Internet telescope, which will put terabytes of data each night into the hands of anyone that wants to explore it," Gates told the Associated Press. LSST is designed to be a public facility - the database and resulting catalogs will be made available to the community at large with no proprietary restrictions. A sophisticated data-management system will provide easy access, enabling simple queries from individual users (both professionals and amateurs), as well as computationally intensive scientific investigations that utilize the entire database, Penn State said.

Billionaire software developer Simonyi became the fifth civilian to fly into space last year when he rocketed to the international space station aboard a Russian Soyuz TMA-10 capsule. He started work for Microsoft in 1981 and oversaw the development of Word and Excel, as well as Excel's predecessor Multiplan. He left in 2002 to co-found, with business partner Gregor Kiczales, a company called Intentional Software.

At the time of the flight Simonyi said his friend Gates was planning a space flight as well. While that idea was squashed, Gates, who retires from day-to-day functions at Microsoft this year may have more time on his hands for a space shot, who knows.

Meanwhile the private space exploration firm Space Adventures, that sponsored Simonyi recently said for the first time the opportunity to train as a private space explorer alongside one of its orbital spaceflight candidates, and among professional astronauts, is open to the public.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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