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Can You Imagine: Surveying the Night Sky in the Era of Big Data?

Today, survey science from any given telescope of the night sky starts at over two days of frequency – meaning that it takes up to 15 days for even our most powerful telescopes to survey the entire night sky.

Imagine being able to map the night sky five times more frequently than our current human capability.

When the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) experiences first light in 2023, we’ll be able to do just that. Thanks to the help of NCSA’s Michelle Butler and Margaret Johnson, not only will we be able to gather this massive amount of data, but also move it across the globe to some of the world’s fastest computers.

Captured from a mountaintop in Chile, the LSST will constantly collect data – 20 terabytes every night – and funnel those massive collections of data across continents to NCSA for analysis in near real-time. Once collected, this data will be processed and stored at NCSA, with nearly 120 petabytes allocated for LSST data.

“Researchers will be able to search through the LSST data and look for individual products,” said Butler, Senior Assistant Director of LSST Core Services at NCSA. “If they want to look at a specific part of the sky over 10 years, we’ll be able to do that. There is nothing that’s able to do that today.”

With this increase in frequency, astronomical researchers will be able to identify anomalies and objects in the night sky magnitudes more quickly than before, and at a survey scale, all while being able to monitor these changes more frequently. This will have applications in identifying risks to earth, getting a vivid picture of astronomical events like star mergers, and even applications for uses of artificial intelligence and machine learning.

By peering into the night sky with cutting edge hardware, data tools, expertise and computing, LSST and NCSA are finding ways to expand our understanding of astronomy as scales that were previously unimaginable.


The National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign provides supercomputing and advanced digital resources for the nation’s science enterprise. At NCSA, University of Illinois faculty, staff, students, and collaborators from around the globe use advanced digital resources to address research grand challenges for the benefit of science and society. NCSA has been advancing one-third of the Fortune 50® for more than 30 years by bringing industry, researchers, and students together to solve grand challenges at rapid speed and scale.


LSST, currently under construction in Chile, is an integrated system designed to conduct an unprecedented decade-long survey of the optical sky. It features an 8.4-meter widefield ground-based telescope, a 3,200 megapixel camera, an automated data processing system, and an online public engagement platform. LSST is supported by major funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), with additional funding by the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science, and private funding through the LSST Corporation.

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