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Astronomy program aims sky-high with $2.4m grant

An observation unit for Ohio State’s All-Sky Automated Search for Supernovae uses four lenses. Credit: Courtesy of Krzysztof Stanek

An Ohio State program’s ambitious project which attempts to document the entire night sky just got a multimillion-dollar boost.

OSUs All-Sky Automated Search for Supernovae program received a $2.4 million grant to build three new observation units in the next five years. The grant, provided by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, will double the program’s number of telescopes from eight to 16 to help ASAS-SN record the entire night sky in real time. The grant will also go toward making all recorded information publicly accessible.

While most space observation programs only record deep space, ASAS-SN is the only project that attempts to record the entire night sky, every night, in order to observe transient cosmic events.

“People are surprised when we tell them there isn’t another project in astronomy that records the entire sky all the time,” said Krzysztof Stanek, a professor of astronomy and ASAS-SN’s principal investigator.

The telescopes funded by the grant will be smaller and commercially produced, measuring 14 centimeters in diameter. By utilizing less-powerful telescopes, ASAS-SN can identify cosmic events that would normally be too bright for deep space projects.

“Because we have smaller telescopes, we cannot go as deep into space, but we can record anything that’s bright,” Stanek said. “ASAS-SN just tells us there is something going on, then we put much more powerful telescopes on it.”

By increasing the number of telescopes and distributing them around the globe, astronomers can record the same coordinates from different locations, regardless of weather conditions. This helps ASAS-SN not miss any significant cosmic events obstructed by clouds, which occasionally happens now.

“The primary targets are supernovae, stars more than about 10 times the size of our sun that explode at the end of their lives,” said Christopher Kochanek, a professor of astronomy who also works on the project. “The rarer things we see are tidal disruption events … where the tides of a black hole rip a star apart.”

Since its inception in 2014, the program has made several contributions to the scientific community in its identification of hundreds of cosmic events every year. These contributions include the closest example of a supermassive black hole and the most luminous supernova ever recorded, according to the news release announcing the grant.

By making ASAS-SN’s data public, the program hopes to inspire scientific inquiry throughout the world.

“We have our own set of projects we’re working on, but we only have so many hours in the day,” said Jon Brown, a graduate research assistant studying ASAS-SN’s data. “One of the benefits of the data being open to the public is that if you add up all the creativity of everyone else, they’re certainly going to come up with an interesting way to use it.”

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