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Unexplored astronomical research areas will emerge as century-old analog data is made accessible in digital format online.

Before the invention of digital cameras in the 1990's, and for more than 120 years before that, astronomers put in several million telescope hours photographing the night sky - measuring star brightnesses, detecting comets, planets, nebulae, mapping our Galaxy, and building the foundations of our understanding of our Universe!  All of this raw beauty, and secrets yet to be discovered, are held as largely unexplored photographic images on thin, fragile pieces of glass.  We have 220,000 of these glass plates.  Digitizing them is the only way to forever preserve these 1,000 terabytes of data acquired and left as a legacy to us by our greatest scientists studying the night sky, and giving future explorers a time machine to the past night sky.

Our goal is to fund the Astronomy Legacy Project (ALP) which will digitize the extensive and diverse set of twentieth century analog (photographic) astronomical data and make it available to the twenty-first century digital world.  

Photographic plate image of the colliding galaxies NGC 6769, 6770, and 6771. These galaxies are located 190 million light years away.  The photograph was taken September 21, 1954 using the 74-inch telescope at Radcliffe Observatory.
Photographic plate image of the colliding galaxies NGC 6769, 6770, and 6771. These galaxies are located 190 million light years away. The photograph was taken September 21, 1954 using the 74-inch telescope at Radcliffe Observatory.

Help us honor and preserve the legacy of generations of astronomers. Completion of ALP will greatly expand the time-domain coverage of observations. Astronomical studies will no longer essentially be limited to the current or very recent sky, but will have access to important time-based clues to the nature of stars, structure of ours and other galaxies, and cosmology. We envision astronomers, students, and the general public benefiting from ALP as new research is made possible by access to the abundance of rich, high quality astronomical data now available only in analog form.  

APDA Staff inspect several plates, searching for peculiar stars.
APDA Staff inspect several plates, searching for peculiar stars.

Digitally replicating a photographic image demands the absolute highest quality possible to preserve the exact quality of the image forever, should the original plate degrade or break.

The Astronomical Photographic Data Archive (APDA) represents a specialized archive – one created in 2006 specifically for archiving astronomical photographic plates and films that others can no longer keep.

APDA contains 40 astronomical photographic plate collections totaling more than 220,000 plates and is growing larger every year.  Photographic plates were the primary data recording medium for generations of astronomers, spanning over 130 years. The goal of APDA is to make it a resource harnessed by present and future generations of astronomers, bringing 20th century analog astronomy into the 21st century digital world. 

Even though the collections are well-preserved, we realize that 21st century scientists and general public demand an online, virtual observatory workplace.  We want to preserve these historic and irreplaceable photographs by digitizing them using a modern digitizing machine.  To accomplish this goal, we plan to purchase the OPTEK 413 VSM,  a highly precise scanning machine (85% of project costs) and support a staff member (15% of project costs) who is responsible for scanning and coordinating with volunteers.

Shown here is the OPTEK 713VSM with one of our plates and digitized image of colliding galaxies NGC 2207 from the plate.  The detail in the digitized image replicates what we see on the plate itself.
Shown here is the OPTEK 713VSM with one of our plates and digitized image of colliding galaxies NGC 2207 from the plate. The detail in the digitized image replicates what we see on the plate itself.

Photographs will be digitized using a state-of-the-art Optek scanning machine that will duplicate the original images precisely, with little error in image densities, shapes, and locations on the original emulsions.The OPTEK machine is designed for precise machine vision industrial applications which we are adapting to a new use.  

The digitized images and catalogs of images will be released and available to the public online through the Astronomy Legacy Project website, which is located within the APDA website.  Any image, or set of images, may be downloaded after digitization of a collection is complete.

The digitized images will be stored in several formats including TIFF, JPEG, and FITS on the 400 TB storage system located in the PARI Data Center.This storage system has a backup system off-campus, so the data is well protected.The metadata to search through the images will include original date of observation and the coordinates of the centers of the images, plus the digitization setup conditions that includes camera specifications, steps sizes, and image overlap conditions.

The plan is to purchase the OPTEK digitizing machine and scan the Warner-Swasey Observatory collection of 14,500 plates which span 50 years from 1942-1992 and contain some of the most exotic objects in the universe like carbon stars and quasars!  The plates were taken with a Schmidt telescope which means they are of the highest astrophotographic quality.  We will digitize 500 plates/week and complete the digitization of this collection within 7 months from the time we begin. Including time to acquire and setup the digitizing machine, the collection will be completely digitized by August 31, 2014.

Once the Case Western Reserve University collection is completed, the next collection we plan to digitize is a rare set of 385 large (14-inch x 14-inch  or 35 cm x 35 cm) plates taken between 1949 and 1952.  The astronomer was searching for the very youngest stars in our Milky Way Galaxy. We anticipate the discovery of many unusual astronomical objects on these absolutely beautiful photographic images that might otherwise remain undiscovered without digitization.  Digitizing these plates allows us to use sophisticated computer image processing techniques to uncover these hidden treasures. We expect to have these plates completely digitized by September 15, 2014.  

 APDA is located in the Research Building on the 200 acre campus of the public not-for-profit Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI) about 30 miles southwest of Asheville, North Carolina.  

The PARI campus, a former NASA Tracking Station, is a dark sky location for astronomy with radio and optical telescopes, earth science instruments, APDA, a fulltime staff supporting science, technology, engineering and math education and research.
The PARI campus, a former NASA Tracking Station, is a dark sky location for astronomy with radio and optical telescopes, earth science instruments, APDA, a fulltime staff supporting science, technology, engineering and math education and research.
A view of the Research Building which houses APDA on the PARI campus.  The large radio dish and smaller one with the Smiley face are a few of the radio telescopes available on campus.
A view of the Research Building which houses APDA on the PARI campus. The large radio dish and smaller one with the Smiley face are a few of the radio telescopes available on campus.

  The current inventory of astronomical photographs in APDA includes more than 220,000 images from 40 collections that include major collections from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO), University of Michigan, Case Western Reserve University, Royal Observatory Edinburgh, Palomar Observatory, Kitt Peak National Observatory, Cerro Tololo InterAmerican Observatory, Harvard College Observatory, the United States Naval Observatory, and smaller collections from numerous observatories throughout the U.S. The photographic plate collection dates range from 1898 to 1993, beginning with the Harvard College Observatory Full Sky Survey and ending with the Warner and Swasey Kitt Peak Station Quasar Survey. Collections are either donated to APDA, or put on long term loan.

APDA has become the home to extremely important archived data that might not otherwise survive or be accessible.More collections are anticipated, and expansion to 10,000 square feet of floor space is possible.

A collection like this is too important to fall into obscurity or disrepair. No matter how small the donation, anything you can give will make a difference toward preserving these materials. We have thirty-five days to raise the money or we don't get any of it. PARI is a 501(c)3 nonprofit, so all donations are tax deductible to the full extent allowable by law.

The Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute staff and their responsibilities on this project include:

  • Director, Astronomical Photographic Data Archive, will prioritize collections to be digitized
  • Chief Information Officer will allocate and maintain the 400 TB of storage available for this project in the PARI Data Center
  • Site Support Engineer will help maintain the functionality of the digitizing machine
  • Instrument Scientist will develop and maintain the data pipeline for storage and access to the digitized images
  • Education Director will use the digitized images in new and existing PARI education curricula
  • Science Director will oversee the entire project
  • Plus volunteers from the Friends of PARI network will help digitize the plates

Beyond the initial program with your help in funding, there are several projects waiting in the wings that we can also get started on:

  • APDA holds about 1/5 of all plates in North America.  We can make the digitizing machine available to other archives, expanding the mission of digital preservation for more than 1,000,000 plates.
  • Provide the shipping resources for other archives which need to be moved to APDA for preservation, archiving, and digitization.
  • Digitize a set of 40,000 films of fisheye views of the sky taken by two telescopes over a period of 8 years in the 1950’s before the space program – these films were taken for a study of the Earth’s upper atmosphere using meteor trails detected on the films.  These same films are expected to hold fascinating information on nova, and other highly variable celestial events.  We will adapt the scanner to digitize these films.

Risks and challenges Learn about accountability on Kickstarter

We know the digitizing machine that will be used in this project works, as demonstrated by Optek with several of our plates. We have 400 TB of storage available in the PARI Data Center, so plenty of storage is available. The Data Center also provides a fast Internet portal so images can be made available online in a reasonable time. However, we will need to develop a data pipeline. This means that once plates are digitized and the images are stored, we need to make them ready for easy access. We are working on the interface for the pipeline, and anticipate it will be ready when we start digitizing. But, software development is sometimes a bit more challenging than expected. If we do run into delays in the pipeline development, we will ask volunteers with programming skills and who are part of the Friends of PARI network to work with our Instrument Scientist who is responsible for the data flow.

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  • Pledge $1 or more
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    44 backers

    The minimum contribution grants you our eternal gratitude and your name in the acknowledgement section of the Astronomy Legacy Project homepage.

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    32 backers

    You receive the previous reward, plus a bookmark with a photo digitized from an astronomical photographic plate taken in the 1980’s. A description of the image – where it was taken, by who, and the name and type of the celestial object are included on the bookmark.

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    71 backers

    You receive the previous rewards, plus a 4x6 photographic print digitized from an astronomical photographic plate taken in the 1970’s. The print will include a certificate of authenticity with a description of the photographic plate from which it was digitized. The description includes the name and type of celestial object, where the image was taken, by whom, and when.

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    83 backers

    You receive the previous rewards, plus an 8x10 photographic print digitized from an astronomical photographic plate taken in the 1960’s. The print will be selected by you from a list provided by the Astronomy Legacy Project Team. The print will include a certificate of authenticity with a description of the photographic plate from which it was digitized. The description includes the name and type of celestial object, where the image was taken, by whom, and when.

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    You receive the previous rewards, plus a link to a shared drive from which you can select 10 images for download to your tablet, phone or computer. The selection of images will include all images digitized from astronomical photographic images taken in the between the 1940’s and 1980’s.

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    36 backers

    You receive the previous rewards, plus an exclusive T-shirt with the Astronomy Legacy Project Logo and a photographic image of the Eta Carina nebula taken in 1976 using the 4-m telescope at Cerro Tololo InterAmerican Observatory. This nebula is famous because it is expected to become a supernova in the astronomically near future.

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    You receive the previous rewards plus a Skype discussion with the Astronomy Legacy Project Team with the opportunity to select and digitize a plate by remote access. Plates will go back to the 1900’s. Who knows what you will discover on your photographic plate! Your digitized image will be named after you, and will be transferred to your tablet, phone, or computer in real-time.

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  • Pledge $1,000 or more
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    You receive the previous rewards plus the opportunity for a VIP one-on-one on-site tour and lunch with the Astronomy Legacy Project Team. You also will be invited as part of the tour to explore the collections of 220,000 photographic plates, select up to a dozen plates, and digitize them yourself! These images will be named after you, and will be transferred to your tablet, phone, or computer in real-time.

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Funding period

- (35 days)