Penn State Joins Major Astronomical Survey

December 15, 2010

Penn State University has become a participant in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey-III (SDSS-III), a six-year project that will expand our knowledge in fields ranging from the planets outside our solar system to the large-scale structure and evolution of the universe. "The SDSS-III is investigating some of the currently most compelling scientific questions," said Lawrence Ramsey, head of Penn State's Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics. "This is a great opportunity for Penn State faculty and students."

The SDSS-III uses the innovative instrumentation of the 2.5-meter (100-inch) telescope at the Apache Point Observatory to perform four independent surveys:

  • -- A search for planets orbiting stars in the neighborhood of our Sun;
  • -- a study of the dynamical and chemical evolution of stars in our Milky Way Galaxy;
  • -- an investigation of the infrared radiation of stars located near the center of the Milky Way; and
  • -- a project to map the distribution of distant galaxies and quasars to understand the mysterious "dark energy" that appears to be driving the current acceleration of the expansion of the universe.

"We are pleased to welcome Penn State as an Associate Member of the SDSS-III," said Survey Director Daniel Eisenstein of Harvard University. "Individuals at Penn State played scientific and administrative leadership roles in the first two phases of the SDSS, and we look forward to increased involvement of Penn State scientists as we proceed with SDSS-III."

Three Penn State astronomy professors, with their postdoctoral researchers and students, will be participating in SDSS-III: Assistant Professor Suvrath Mahadevan and distinguished professors Niel Brandt and Donald Schneider.

"We hope to identify a large number of new planets with SDSS-III," said Mahadevan, who was a member of the team that designed and built the planet-finding instrument used by SDSS-III. "These new planets will be quite interesting targets for detailed study with Penn State's 8-meter Hobby-Eberly Telescope. There also will be considerable interaction between the SDSS-III infrared survey and Penn State's infrared-instrumentation program for the Hobby-Eberly Telescope."

Brandt is leading two SDSS-III science projects that are related to supermassive black holes. "The SDSS-III instrumentation will obtain information on over 120,000 distant quasars, which are thought to be large black holes that are capturing material at the rate of about one solar mass per year," Brandt said. "This database will be of unprecedented size for these objects, and will permit an investigation of the formation of supermassive black holes when the universe was much younger than it is today." Schneider is the SDSS-III Survey Coordinator. He is responsible for scheduling the SDSS-III observations and for monitoring the progress of the scientific programs.

One aspect of Penn State's SDSS-III connection that particularly excites Ramsey is the potential for student involvement in front-line research. "I fully expect to witness, over the next few years, a number of SDSS-III discoveries that include important contributions by Penn State graduate and undergraduate students," Ramsey said.

Funding for SDSS-III has been provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Participating Institutions, the National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Energy.

SDSS-III is managed by the Astrophysical Research Consortium for the Participating Institutions of the SDSS-III Collaboration including the University of Arizona, the Brazilian Participation Group, Brookhaven National Laboratory, University of Cambridge, University of Florida, the French Participation Group, the German Participation Group, the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias, the Michigan State/Notre Dame/JINA Participation Group, Johns Hopkins University, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics, New Mexico State University, New York University, the Ohio State University, the Penn State University, University of Portsmouth, Princeton Univerity, the Spanish Participation Group,University of Tokyo, the University of Utah, Vanderbilt University, University of Virginia, University of Washington, and Yale University.

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  • The Sloan Digital Sky Survey's 2.5-meter telescope at the Apache Point Observatory in the Sacramento Mountains of New Mexico is on the left.

Last Updated March 21, 2011