World first: Aussie astronomers digitally map southern sky

Digital map of southern sky available free online through a ‘virtual observatory’.

But Skymapper wont just be a content provider for the southern hemisphere; it also boasts a specific niche in stellar astrophysics - the characterisation of stars.

"There are three important parameters that define a star: temperature, surface gravity, and heavy element abundance," Kellar explained.

Those parameters can tell astronomers and astro-physicists how and where these stars were formed, and how they got to where they are today.

"We've designed our filter set to have optimal ability to decode those stars. It's a whole new window into the construction of the galaxy," Kellar said.

The data collected by Skymapper will flow through the Siding Springs Observatory and onto the ANU's Supercomputing facility, where a range of open source software is used to process and monitor the calibration of the system.

One of the things the RSAA is most proud of is the fact that this world-first information base will be made widely available, free of charge, to anyone who wants it.

"We have so much data and in order to make the most of that we have to let the rest of the world do great science with it as well as ourselves, so we will share that via the Web in the order of 30 terabytes," Kellar said.

Skymapper will also improve the effectiveness of other instruments by providing calibration anywhere in the sky.

Kellar said the Southern Sky Survey should be up and running by the middle of 2008, and the data Skymapper provides "will be used in countless science projects, not only here but all over the world".

The only problem? The Sliding Springs observatory is located in one of the highest lighting strike areas in Australia.

"One strike would cook it," Kellar said.

(Andrew Hendry was a guest at the ANU's Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics)

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