New quest to map stars and galaxies across the entire sky

Barbara K. Kennedy and Jordan Raddick
November 16, 2017

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has announced a $16 million grant to support the next generation of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS-V) — a project including Penn State scientists that is one of the most successful and influential efforts to map the universe in the history of astronomy. Among the accomplishments of the SDSS scientists so far are the most detailed three-dimensional maps of the universe ever made, deep multi-color images of one-third of the sky, and spectral "fingerprints" of more than three million astronomical objects.

The grant will kickstart the next wave of the project's discoveries, a groundbreaking survey of stars and galaxies throughout the entire sky. The scientists will measure the objects' visible light and other kinds of electromagnetic radiation — a spectroscopic survey — in order to learn the objects' distance from Earth, temperature, chemical composition and other properties. The new grant will be managed by the Astrophysical Research Consortium, which manages the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

"In its nearly two decades of full operation, the SDSS has profoundly influenced our understanding of a wide range of fundamental questions, ranging from the structure of the Milky Way to the nature of the expansion of the universe," said Penn State professor of astronomy and astrophysics Donald Schneider. "By adding new instrumentation, the fifth phase of the SDSS will allow us to embark on investigations that would have been inconceivable several years ago." Schneider has held numerous roles in the planning and execution of the SDSS since 1989.

"I am thrilled that we'll soon be using the powerful SDSS to investigate several new aspects of quasars, the strongest manifestations in the cosmos of the growth of supermassive black holes," said Niel Brandt, Verne M. Willaman Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State. "We aim to measure black-hole masses in distant quasars on a truly industrial scale, as well as to probe the variability of quasar winds far better than ever before. I'm most grateful for the support of Penn State and its Willaman Endowment for making this possible."

Brandt has been a member of the third, fourth and now fifth iterations of the SDSS during the years from 2008 to 2017. He and his group members have worked on a variety of topics including the variability of quasar winds, the masses of the black holes at the centers of quasars, and the characteristics of quasars speeding the fastest and farthest away from Earth.

Penn State Professor Michael Eracleous has also played an active role in SDSS-IV. He and his group will continue investigations of variable sources in the distant universe; in particular, the rare cases of supermassive black holes that suddenly appear (over the timescale of years) to cease accreting large amounts of matter.

The survey’s fifth generation will build off the earlier SDSS incarnations, but will break new ground by pioneering all-sky observations and by monitoring, over time, the changes in a million objects. "With observations in both hemispheres, no part of the sky will be hidden from SDSS-V," said the director of the SDSS-V effort, Juna Kollmeier of the Carnegie Institution for Science. The research is expected to start in 2020.

In the tradition of previous Sloan Surveys, SDSS-V is committed to making its data publicly available in a format that is helpful to a broad range of users, from the youngest students to both amateur and professional astronomers. "SDSS has long been a great example of hundreds of astronomers of all ages, from many continents, working together on a big project. We're excited to continue that tradition," said Gail Zasowski, a professor at the University of Utah and the SDSS-V Spokesperson.

SDSS-V will make use of both optical and infrared spectroscopy, to observe not only in two hemispheres, but also at two wavelengths of light. SDSS-V will consist of three projects, each mapping different components of the universe: The Milky Way Mapper, the Black Hole Mapper and the Local Volume Mapper. The first mapper focuses on the formation of the Milky Way and its stars and planets. The second will study the formation, growth and ultimate sizes of the supermassive black holes that lurk at the centers of galaxies. The Local Volume Mapper will create the first complete spectroscopic maps of the most-iconic nearby galaxies.

"For more than 20 years, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey has defined excellence in astronomy,” said Paul L. Joskow, president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. "SDSS-V continues that august tradition by combining cutting-edge research, international collaboration, technological innovation, and cost-effective grassroots governance. The Sloan Foundation is proud to be a core supporter of SDSS-V."

The survey operates out of both Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico, home of the survey’s original 2.5-meter telescope, and Carnegie's Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, where it uses Carnegie's du Pont telescope. "SDSS-V is proof that great science knows no borders and stands out for its commitment to diversity," said Evan S. Michelson, program director at the Sloan Foundation. "It will create unparalleled opportunities for all scientists to participate in answering some of the most exciting questions in astronomy. We are thrilled to be supporting Juna Kollmeier, her team at the Carnegie Institution for Science, and the entire SDSS Collaboration."

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated January 05, 2018