The Australian National University (ANU) is conducting a world-first program to digitally map the southern sky using a specially constructed telescope called Skymapper, and in another global first will provide the data free to the world via a virtual observatory.
Skymapper is the first of a new breed of dedicated "rapid survey" telescopes, built by the ANU's Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics (RSAA) at Mount Stromlo observatory in Canberra.
Funded by insurance from the January 2003 bushfires that destroyed most of Mount Stromlo's telescopes, the Skymapper project will take five years to map the southern sky and when finished will have created Australia's largest non-proprietary data set - a whopping half-petabyte of astronomical information.
"Telescopes such as Skymapper are really a portend of a shift in how we will do astronomy in the future," said Stefan Kellar of the RSAA.
"We will see an increasing reliance on globally distributed Web-based datasets that will be brought together by the concept of the 'virtual observatory'," he said.
Skymapper will have a huge scientific impact because it is covering such a large area of sky, something that has only recently become feasible.
"Prior to a few years ago the only way we could perform something like a southern sky survey was with photographic plates, which are rather insensitive and hard to characterize, so the science we can extract from them is rather limited," Kellar explained.