New telescope to map the southern skies

Canberra, New South Wales – SkyMapper, Australia’s first new optical research telescope for 25 years, was inaugurated yesterday to map the southern skies.

The $13 million telescope has been custom built to undertake the Southern Sky Survey – the first ever systematic digital map of the southern skies. Over the next five years the telescope will take detailed pictures of the whole southern sky. In the process it will produce 400TB of data, which will be freely available to astronomers via the internet.

“Astronomers at Stromlo, across Australia, and the rest of the world will use this data to discover everything from dwarf planets like Pluto in our solar system, to the first black holes in the universe, whose light has taken 13 billion years to reach us”, said Professor Brian Schmidt, the project’s lead scientist.

The telescope includes Australia’s largest and most sensitive digital camera, a 268 megapixel behemoth, which can snap pictures covering an area of sky 25 times larger than the full moon, with a sensitivity five million times more than the human eye, every two minutes.

The project began in 2002 when the Australian National University (ANU) Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics applied for a grant from the Australian Research Council to do a modest survey of the southern skies using the Great Melbourne Telescope at Mount Stromlo. But just 18 days after the grant was awarded the GMT was destroyed in the Canberra bushfires. The SkyMapper project grew from that as part of Mt Stromlo’s rebirth from the ashes.