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Artwork shows the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope scanning the night sky in Chile. (LSST Illustration)

A new data analysis center for what’s expected to be torrents of astronomical imagery is taking shape at the University of Washington.

Thanks to contributions from software billionaire Charles Simonyi and other donors, researchers at the Astronomy Department’s DIRAC Institute are getting ready to crunch data from two wide-angle telescope surveys.

The first survey is the Palomar Observatory’s Zwicky Transient Facility, which is due to begin operations in August and will scan the entire accessible sky every night for supernovae and other cosmic outbursts.

The DIRAC Institute will also manage the development of analytical tools for the almost real-time processing of images from the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, a massive observatory that’s scheduled to start scanning the skies over Chile in 2019.

“When the LSST comes online at the end of this decade it will address big questions, from measuring the nature of the dark energy that drives the expansion of our universe to finding asteroids that may one day impact the Earth, providing enough warning that those asteroids’ trajectories can be modified,” the institute’s director, UW astronomer Andrew Connolly, said last year in a preview of DIRAC’s mission.

“LSST could completely transform our knowledge of our universe,” he said.

DIRAC stands for “data intensive research in astrophysics and cosmology,” but the acronym also pays tribute to 20th-century theoretical physicist Paul Dirac, a Nobel-winning pioneer of quantum mechanics who predicted the discovery of antimatter.

The institute’s primary focus will be to create digital tools for storing and analyzing the huge amounts of data that the Palomar survey, the LSST and other next-generation sky surveys are expected to generate.

LSST alone is designed to record 15 trillion bytes of raw data every night, and survey the entire sky every three days. The telescope is optimized to detect minute changes in the night sky for worldwide follow-up, and the processing system will be built to send out alerts about interesting transient events within 60 seconds of completing the image comparisons.

Connolly told GeekWire that the LSST as well as the Zwicky Transient Facility would be looking for “anything that goes bump in the night,” astronomically speaking. As challenging as it will be to analyze all that data in near-real-time, Connolly thinks there will be even bigger challenges ahead.

“What we really think is going to be the limitation for the science is what the community can do with it – extracting the knowledge from years’ worth of data,” he said.

The $473 million LSST project is being funded by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy and private contributors including Simonyi and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.

“In the first week, we will see more data from this telescope than all the telescopes in humanity up to that point,” Simonyi said nearly a decade ago.

DIRAC is getting ready for the flood. “We just completed our first round of hiring,” Connolly said. Three to four postdoctoral researchers are due to join the institute this summer, and more researchers are expected to come on board in the months ahead.

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