What compels us to look to the heavens? To dream of distant galaxies and worlds unexplored?

To say to ourselves tomorrow, we see farther?

In the final part of the series Collecting Light: An Exploration of Arizona Astronomy, we look at two projects that will make a long-term survey of the night, potentially unlocking the deepest reaches of our known universe.

Listen now:

Astronomers admit that our map of the known universe has a lot of blank spots, a lot of areas about which we know little.

The mapmakers of antiquity wrote “here be dragons” on their map’s blank spots. It suggested mystery, even danger. For astronomers, their empty spots offer an equal amount of the unknown. We don’t know what makes up most of the universe. We know a fair bit about matter, a little about dark matter, and almost nothing about dark energy.

Here be dragons.

Two projects aim to change what we know. If they’re successful, they could fill in those blank spots in our map of the universe.

Mayall Telescope
The 4-meter (158-inch) Mayall Telescope on Kitt Peak. The 18-story dome can be seen from more than 50 miles away. The telescope’s mirror weighs 15 tons and is polished to one-millionth of an inch. The Mayall is home to the BigBOSS sky imaging project. (Photo: Mark Duggan)

The first, known as BigBoss, will be based at Arizona’s National Optical Astronomy Observatory. It will create a map that will cover about a quarter of the night sky, going back to when the universe was about 8 billion years old. The idea is to learn more about that mysterious dark energy.

Another similarly ambitious project is the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope in South America. The LSST will incorporate seven giant mirror segments that will operate as a single instrument. A 3,200-megapixel camera – the world’s largest – will produce up to 30 terabytes of data each night for ten years. But more importantly, once the data is parsed, even amateur astronomers will be able to see it.

Navy Precision Optical Interferometer tubes
The Navy Precision Optical Interferometer southeast of Flagstaff uses an array of six mirrors spaced tens to hundreds of meters apart. The instrument is so sensitive that it can successfully pick out distant pairs of stars that appear as a single star to even the largest conventional telescopes. It’s another example of innovative new astronomy to allow us to see more of our known – and unknown – universe. (Photo: Mark Duggan)

The LSST will afford a better view of nearby objects in our solar system for professional astronomers. They’ll also gain a deeper understanding of celestial phenomena such as supernovae and galaxy clusters.

Ultimately, it will help them unlock more secrets of the stars. Which is what astronomy is all about. And the whole world will get to see it.

It’s the democratization of astronomy in action. We all share in the wonder.

Collecting Light: An Exploration of Arizona Astronomy is an audio documentary series looking at the state’s past, present, and future of professional and amateur stargazing.

See a gallery of photos from the series here. Listen to the other episodes now:

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