June 19, 2003

New Palomar Observatory CCD Camera Utilizes HPWREN Backbone for Near-Real-Time Data Transfer:
Scientists Hope to Better Understand Cosmos via the Palomar QUEST

Few realize that current astronomers can only see approximately a few percent of the total cosmos - the rest is often referred to as "dark energy" and is yet to be seen or understood. Thanks to a new project at the Palomar Observatory, however, we may be one step closer to catching a glimpse of this massive unknown.

palomar observatory
In order to transfer 50 Gigabytes of images per night, the newly established QUEST project at Palomar Observatory uses the HPWREN 45 Mbps backbone node. This high-speed connectivity allows astronomers to process and view their images in near-real-time, an ability that is very important in better understanding the varying position of objects in the cosmos.

The Palomar QUEST (QUasar Equatorial Survey Team), a variability sky survey project encompassing a multi-institutional collaboration of astronomers and physicists, aims to help scientists better understand this dark energy by examining the position of our Universe's objects - and how they move. Led by Charles Baltay, Astronomy Professor and Chairman of Physics at Yale University, Palomar QUEST is specifically focused on searching the night skies for gravitationally lensed quasars.

"...extremely bright objects which are the furthest objects seen in the universe...small pointlike objects...the present conjecture is that they are giant black holes near the centers of galaxies and the source of their energy is matter from the surrounding galaxy being absorbed by the black hole..."

-C. Baltay, Yale astronomer
"In the past, we have focused on brightness, rather than variability," says Baltay. "The QUEST project allows us to view 500 square degrees per night and see if we find something that was not there the night before."

The QUEST team recently installed a custom-made CCD (Charge-Coupled Device) camera to the 48-inch Oschin telescope at the Palomar Observatory. With its connectivity to the 45Mbps HPWREN backbone, QUEST is able to transmit near-real-time images straight from the camera to image processing labs around the country.

The team is currently transferring data from the camera at Palomar to CalTech for processing and then on to Yale and other institutions for further examination. "Last year, we discovered a new minor planet - Plutino - via a similar project in Venezuela and we are hopeful to make many more such discoveries so that we can come closer to understanding more about our cosmos," says Baltay. "Getting the data off the mountain in real-time is very important for us to be able to do such research and HPWREN enables us to do that."

Baltay and his team at Yale usually operate in "driftscan" mode, where the telescope and camera are held steady while the sky drifts across the focal plane. Each CCD (in the driftscan direction) produces an image that is many hours long.

For instance, this image of the globular cluster NGC6760 was taken through a red filter on June 5, 2003; such images in full size are more than 8000 megapixels! The transmission of such large images, obviously, requires a broadband network.

For images regarding the newly installed camera at Palomar Observatory, please refer to https://cdn.hpwren.ucsd.edu/images/20030501/.

For more information about additional projects at Palomar Observatory, see /news/010801.html.


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