The Astronomy Legacy Project
The Astronomy Legacy Project
Unexplored astronomical research areas will emerge as century-old analog data is made accessible in digital format online.
Unexplored astronomical research areas will emerge as century-old analog data is made accessible in digital format online. Read more
About this project
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.
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.
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.
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 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
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.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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