Washington, Nov 19 : Researchers have developed silicon chips for a new survey telescope that will soon provide a more than fivefold improvement in scientists' ability to detect asteroids and comets that could someday pose a threat to Earth.
The silicon chips have been developed at MIT's (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Lincoln Laboratory for the prototype telescope installed on Haleakala Mountain, Maui, which will begin operation this December.
It will feature the world's largest and most advanced digital camera, using the Lincoln Laboratory silicon chips.
This telescope is the first of four that will be housed together in one dome.
The system, called Pan-STARRS (for Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System), is being developed at the University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy.
"This is a truly giant instrument," said University of Hawaii astronomer John Tonry, who led the team developing the new 1.4-gigapixel camera. "We get an image that is 38,000 by 38,000 pixels in size, or about 200 times larger than you get in a high-end consumer digital camera," he added.
Pan-STARRS, whose cameras cover an area of sky six times the width of the full moon and can detect stars 10 million times fainter than those visible to the naked eye, is also unique in its ability to find moving or variable objects.
The primary mission of Pan-STARRS is to detect Earth-approaching asteroids and comets that could be dangerous to the planet.
When the system becomes fully operational, the entire sky visible from Hawaii (about three-quarters of the total sky) will be photographed at least once a week, and all images will be entered into powerful computers at the Maui High Performance Computer Center.
Scientists at the center will analyze the images for changes that could reveal a previously unknown asteroid.
They will also combine data from several images to calculate the orbits of asteroids, looking for indications that an asteroid may be on a collision course with Earth.
Pan-STARRS will also be used to catalog 99 percent of stars in the northern hemisphere that have ever been observed by visible light, including stars from nearby galaxies.
In addition, the Pan-STARRS survey of the whole sky will present astronomers with the opportunity to discover, and monitor, planets around other stars, as well as rare explosive objects in other galaxies.