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The greatest movie ever made

Directed by astronomers
Starring our universe

19 May 2016

3 mirrors and 3 lenses

This artist's conception shows the optical elements of LSST: 3 mirrors, and 3 lenses
(Credit: LSST)

The World’s first motion picture of our Universe, being dubbed the ‘greatest movie ever made’, is to be produced by international astronomers.

The film, which could feature dangerous asteroids and uncover some of the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy, will be recorded on a giant digital camera comprising 3.2 billion pixels.

It hasn’t been completed yet, but when it is, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) will be the World’s largest digital camera. It will be able to take images of the sky that each cover over 40 times the area of the moon, building up a survey of the entire visible sky in just three nights.

That means billions of galaxies, stars and solar system objects will be seen for the first time and monitored over ten years. UK astronomers will now play a key part after funding from the Science and Technology Facilities Council confirmed the UK’s participation.

Steven Kahn, the LSST Director said: “I am delighted that STFC is supporting UK participation in LSST. It is great to see UK astronomers engaging in preparation for LSST, and we look forward to seeing our collaboration develop over the coming years. LSST will be one of the foremost astronomy projects in the next decades and the UK astronomical community will contribute strongly to its success. The telescope is being built in the Chilean Andes. Conditions there are some of the driest on Earth, making it the ideal position for observing.

When it starts operating, it will generate one of the largest scientific datasets in the World.

The LSST is a ‘synoptic’ survey because it will form an overall view of the Universe: billions of objects will be imaged in six colours, spanning a volume of the Universe that is larger than any previously explored.

“What is unique about LSST is that each of its images covers a large area of sky to a depth that captures faint objects, and that it takes these images really quickly”, said The LSST:UK Project Scientist, Sarah Bridle from the University of Manchester. “That combination of area, depth and speed means that we can do lots of different science with the same dataset.

“LSST will build up a very detailed map of billions of galaxies, with approximate distances to each, from which we will learn about the mysterious dark energy that seems to be accelerating the expansion of the Universe. But, equally, it will look for changes in the sky from night to night; both moving objects, like asteroids, and new ones, like supernovae, that appear where nothing had been seen before. Covering each patch of sky over 800 times during its decade of operations, it will construct our first motion picture of the Universe”.

The science themes of the LSST encompass astronomy, physics, chemistry, earth science, space science, mathematics, technology and computing, fostering interdisciplinary working.

LSST Facility

A combination of two renderings, showing the LSST Facility on the El Penόn summit
(Credit: LSST)

As well as providing unprecedented scientific data, the development of LSST will help train future scientists and bring advances in computing:

“Extracting scientific knowledge from LSST will pose major challenges in the management and analysis of data. These “Big Data” issues are seen across the commercial sector as well as in science, but astronomy provides the ideal testbed for addressing them, as our data is free from the ethical and commercial constraints found in other domains. Many from the generation of young researchers who develop their skills preparing for the LSST data deluge will end up applying their expertise in business or the public sector, so the impact of UK participation in LSST will be felt well beyond astrophysics”, said the LSST:UK Project Leader, Bob Mann from the University of Edinburgh.

The benefits of the UK being a member of the LSST extend yet further. The LSST will provide unprecedented access to data, allowing for new kinds of citizen science and discovery. In recent years, the UK-based Zooniverse project has pioneered citizen science investigations of data in astronomy, enabling more than one million members of the public to, amongst other things, classify galaxies, discover planets and explore the outer solar system.

The Zooniverse’s Chris Lintott, member of the LSST Outreach Advisory Board, noted, “We know that data from LSST will contain a vast wealth of exciting things; we’re looking forward to making sure everyone, regardless of their background, can help us uncover what’s hidden in there”.

Discoveries made by the LSST will also be used to construct educational materials that will be freely available to schools and the public.

Andrew Norton from the Open University, the LSST:UK Education and Public Outreach Coordinator, said, "The LSST will allow us to see the night sky changing in front of our eyes and everyone can get involved to understand how the Universe works. The LSST will show us what a dynamic place the Universe is."

The telescope will achieve first light in 2020 and its main sky survey will begin in 2022.

Like all good movie franchises, the LSST story will unfold in stages, from a preview in 2023 to a finale in 2033. Get your tickets now!

Notes to editors

LSST is a partnership between public and private organisations and is led by the US. The unique scientific opportunities presented by LSST have led to the formation of a consortium of astronomers from 35 UK institutions now funded to become involved in the project by STFC.

Media contact

  • Lucy Stone
    STFC communications department
    Tel: 01235 445052

Science contacts

  • Professor Sarah Bridle
    LSST:UK Project Scientist
    Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics
    University of Manchester
    Tel: 0161 275 4092
    Mobile: 07932 395210
    Twitter: @sarahbridle
  • Dr. Bob Mann
    LSST:UK Project Leader
    Institute for Astronomy
    University of Edinburgh
    Tel: 0131 668 8338
  • Professor Andrew Norton
    LSST:UK Education & Public Outreach Coordinator
    Department of Physical Sciences
    The Open University
    Tel: 01908 654121
    Mobile: 07582 193844
    Twitter: @ajnorton3


Further information

About the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST)

The LSST will be sited at Cerro Pachón in the Chilean Andes at an altitude of 2715m. The primary mirror diameter is 8.4m, making it one of the largest single telescopes in the world. It also contains secondary and tertiary mirrors with diameters of 3.4m and 5.2m respectively. It will contain the world’s largest digital camera, comprising 3.2 billion pixels (3200 Mpix) in a circular array of 189 detectors. The size of the camera detector is 63cm across. It will generate 30 Terabytes (30,000 Gb) of data every night.

It will achieve first light in 2020 and its main sky survey will begin in 2022. The scale of the technical challenges involved in storing and analyzing LSST’s data are daunting, and researchers are already heavily engaged on the project.

“Synoptic” derives from the Greek word “synopsis” and refers to looking at all aspects of something.

The effort to build the LSST is a partnership between public and private organizations. Financial support for LSST comes from the National Science Foundation (NSF) through Cooperative Agreement No. 1258333, the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science under Contract No. DE-AC02-76SF00515, and private funding raised by the LSST Inc. (LSSTC). The NSF-funded LSST Project Office for construction was established as an operating center under management of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA). The DOE-funded effort to build the LSST camera is managed by the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory (SLAC).

Operations of the LSST facility will be funded via a consortium of NSF, DOE, and LSSTC. LSSTC’s 25% share of operations will be funded primarily by international contributors who, through agreements with LSSTC, gain access to the LSST data. The LSST:UK consortium has signed a Memorandum of Agreement with LSSTC and will contribute to operations via the LSSTC.

The LSST: UK Consortium

This comprises the following institutes: Armagh Observatory, Cardiff University, Durham University, Imperial College London, Keele University, Lancaster University, Liverpool John Moores University, The Open University, Queen Mary University of London, Queen's University Belfast, University of Bath, University of Birmingham, University of Bristol, University of Cambridge, University of Central Lancashire, The University of Edinburgh, University of Exeter, University of Glasgow, University of Hertfordshire, University of Hull, University of Kent, University of Leicester, University of Leeds, The University of Manchester, The University of Nottingham, University of Oxford, University of Portsmouth, University of St Andrews, The University of Sheffield, University of Southampton, University of Surrey, University of Sussex, The University of Warwick, University College London, UK Astronomy Technology Centre.

Science and Technology Facilities Council Switchboard: 01793 442000