Keith Bechtol at UW Space Place

We are so very fortunate here in southern Wisconsin to have evening public lectures the 2nd Tuesday every month of the year at the University of Wisconsin Space Place, expertly organized by Jim Lattis. On Tuesday, November 12th, Clif Cavanaugh (retired physics and astronomy professor at the UW in Richland Center) and I made the trek (as we often do) from Spring Green-Dodgeville to the Space Place in Madison. This month, we were treated to an excellent presentation by Keith Bechtol, an Observational Cosmologist in the Physics Department at UW-Madison. His topic was The Big Picture: Science with Astronomical Surveys. Keith is an early career scientist with a bright future. His presentation was outstanding.

I’d like to share with you some of the highlights.

Before the talk, which is mostly about the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), currently under construction in Chile and expected to see first light in 2020, I asked Keith about whether LSST would be renamed the Vera Rubin Telescope as was announced at AAS 234 in St. Louis this past summer. As it turns out, Keith has been a vocal advocate for naming LSST after Vera Rubin, though no final decision has yet been made.

Before I get into notes from the talk, I wanted to share with you the definition of the word synoptic in case you are not familiar with that word. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word synoptic as “furnishing a general view of some subject; spec. depicting or dealing with weather conditions over a large area at the same point in time.” But rather than the traditional meteorological definition, here we are referring to a wide-field survey of the entire night sky visible from Cerro Pachón in Chile, latitude 30˚ S.

Keith first talked about how astronomical imaging is currently advancing along two fronts. The first is high-resolution imaging, as recently illustrated with first image of the event horizon of a black hole from the Event Horizon Telescope, where an amazing resolution of around 25 microarcseconds was achieved.

In general, the larger the telescope aperture, the smaller the field of view.

The Hubble Space Telescope’s Ultra Deep Field is only 3.1 arcminutes square

A survey telescope, on the other hand, must be designed to cover a much larger area of the sky for each image.

Not only can a survey telescope detect “anything that changes” in the night sky, but it also allows us to probe the large-scale structure of our universe. Three still-mysterious entities that are known to affect this large-scale structure are dark energy, dark matter, and neutrinos. Keith indicates that “these names are placeholders for physics we don’t yet fully understand.”

Dark energy, which is responsible for driving galaxies apart at an accelerating rate, is unusual in that it maintains a constant density as the universe expands. And its density is very low.

Supernovae are a very useful tool to probe the dark-energy-induced accelerating expansion of the universe, but in any particular galaxy they are exceedingly rare, so by monitoring large areas of the sky (ideally, the entire sky), we can discover supernovae frequently.

The mass distribution of our universe subtly affects the alignment and shapes of distant galaxies through a phenomenon known as weak gravitational lensing. Understanding these distortions and correlations requires a statistical approach looking at many galaxies across large swaths of sky.

Closer to home, small galaxies that have come too close our Milky Way galaxy are pulled apart into stellar streams that require a “big picture” approach to discover and map. The dark matter distribution in our Milky Way galaxy plays an important role in shaping these stellar streams—our galaxy contains about ten times as much dark matter as normal matter.

With wide-field surveys, not only do we need to cover large areas of sky, but we also want to be able to see the faintest and most distant objects. That latter property is referred to as “going deeper”.

The LSST will provide a dramatic increase in light gathering power over previous survey instruments. The total number of photons collected by a survey instrument per unit time is known as the étendue, a French word, and it is the field of view (in square degrees) × the effective aperture (in m2) × the quantum efficiency (unitless fraction). The units of étendue are thus m2deg2. Note that the vertical axis in the graph below is logarithmic, so the LSST will have a significantly higher étendue than previous survey instruments.

The largest monolithic mirrors in the world are fabricated at the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab at the University of Arizona in Tucson. The largest mirrors that can be produced there are 8.4 meters, and LSST has one of them.

Remember the Yerkes Observatory 40-inch refractor, completed in 1897? It has held the record as the largest lens ever used in an astronomical telescope. Until now. A 61.8-inch lens (L-1) and a 47.2-inch (L-2) have been fabricated for use in the LSST camera.

L-1, the largest lens ever produced, is the front lens of the LSST camera

LSST will utilize a camera that is about the size of a car. It is the largest camera ever built for astronomy.

The LSST camera will produce 3.2 gigapixel images. You would need to cover about half a basketball court with 4K TV screens to display the image at full resolution.

An image will be produced every 15 seconds throughout the night, every clear night, and each patch of sky will be reimaged every three nights. That is a HUGE amount of data! ~10 Tb of data each night. Fiber optical cable will transport the data from Cerro Pachón to the National Center for Supercomputing Applications in Urbana, Illinois, where it will be prepared for immediate use and made publicly available to any interested researcher. The amount of data is so large that no one will be downloading raw data to their local computer. They will instead be logging in to the supercomputer and all processing of the data will be done there, using open source software packages.

There are many data processing challenges with LSST data needing to be solved. Airplane, satellite, and meteor trails will need to be carefully removed. Many images will be so densely packed with overlapping objects that special care will be needed separating the various objects.

One LSST slide that Keith presented showed “Solar System Objects: ~ 6 million” and that piqued my interest, given my ongoing research program of observing stellar occultations by asteroids and trans-Neptunian objects for IOTA. Currently, if you endeavor to observe the highest probability occultation events from a fixed observatory location each night, you will be lucky to record one positive event for every ten negative events (no occultation). The reason for this is that our knowledge of the orbital elements of the small bodies of the solar system is not yet precise enough to accurately predict where stellar occultation events will occur. Gaia DR3, scheduled for the latter half of 2021, should significantly improve the precision of small body orbits, and even though LSST does not have nearly the astrometric precision of Gaia, it will provide many valuable astrometric data points over time that can be used to refine orbital elements. Moreover, it is expected that LSST will discover—with its much larger aperture than Gaia—at least 10 times the number of asteroids and trans-Neptunian objects that are currently known.

During the question and answer period after the lecture, I asked Keith what effect the gigantic increase in the number of satellites in Earth orbit will have on LSST operations (global broadband internet services provided by organizations like SpaceX with its Starlink constellation). He stated that this definitely presents a data processing challenge that they are still working on.

An earlier version of Keith’s presentation can be found here. All images in this article except the first (OED) come from Keith’s presentation and have not been altered in any way.


Bechtol, Keith, “The Big Picture: Science with Astronomical Surveys” (lecture, University of Wisconsin Space Place, Madison, November 12, 2019).

Bechtol, Ellen & Keith, “The Big Picture: Science and Public Outreach with Astronomical Surveys” (lecture, Wednesday Night at the Lab, University of Wisconsin, Madison, April 17, 2019; University Place, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, PBS Wisconsin).

Jones, R. L., Jurić, M., & Ivezić, Ž. 2016, in IAU Symposium, Vol. 318, Asteroids: New Observations, New Models, ed. S. R. Chesley, A. Morbidelli, R. Jedicke, & D. Farnocchia, 282–292. .

Oxford English Dictionary Online, accessed November 17, 2019, .

Brightest Event Ever Observed

On June 14, 2015, perhaps the intrinsically brightest event ever recorded was detected at or near the center of the obscure galaxy APMUKS(BJ) B215839.70−615403.9 in the southern constellation Indus, at a luminosity distance of about 3.8 billion light years.

ASASSN-15lh (All–Sky Automated Survey for SuperNovae), also designated SN 2015L, is located at α2000=22h02m15.45s, δ2000=-61° 39′ 34.6″ and is thought to be a super-luminous supernova—sometimes called a hypernova—but other interpretations are still in play.

Let’s put the brightness of SN 2015L in context.  Peaking at an absolute visual magnitude of -24.925 (which would be its apparent visual magnitude at the standard distance of 10 parsecs), SN 2015L would shine as bright as the Sun in our sky if it were 14 light years away—about the distance to van Maanen’s Star, the nearest solitary white dwarf.  SN 2015L would be as bright as the full moon if it were at a distance of 8,921 light years.  SN 2015L would be as bright as the planet Venus if it were at a distance of 333,000 light years.  Since the visible part of our galaxy is only about 100,000 ly across, had this supernova occurred anywhere in our galaxy, it would have been brighter than Venus.  If SN 2015L had occurred in M31, the Andromeda Galaxy, 2.5 million light years away, it would take its place (albeit temporarily) as the third brightest star in the night sky (-0.47m), after Sirius (-1.44m) and Canopus (-0.62m), but brighter than Alpha Centauri (-0.27m) and Arcturus (-0.05m).

The Open Supernova Catalog (Guillochon et al. 2017) lists three events that were possibly intrinsically brighter than SN 2015L.  Two events were afterglows of gamma ray bursts GRB 81007 and GRB 30329: SN 2008hw at -25.014m and SN 2003dh at -26.823m, respectively.  And the other event was the first supernova detected by the Gaia astrometric spacecraft, Gaia 14aaa, 500 Mly distant, shining perhaps as brightly as -27.1m.

Chatzopoulos E., Wheeler J. C., Vinko J., et al., 2016, ApJ, 828, 94
Dong S., Shappee B. J., Prieto J. L., Jha S. W., et al., 2016, Science, 351, 257
Guillochon J., Parrent J., Kelley L. Z., Margutti R., 2017, ApJ, 835, 64

Bonner Durchmusterung und Gaia

As our civilization and technology continue to evolve, it seems we take far too much for granted.  We neglect to consider how incredibly hard people used to work years ago to achieve results we today would pass off as almost trivial.  But history has many lessons to teach us, if only we would listen.

As an example, Prussian astronomer Friedrich Wilhelm August Argelander (1799-1875) at the age of 60 began publishing the most comprehensive star catalogue and atlas ever compiled, as of that date.  From 1852 to 1859, Argelander and his assistants carefully and accurately recorded the position and brightness of over 324,000 stars using a 3-inch (!) telescope in Bonn, Germany.  Employing the Earth’s rotation, star positions were measured as each star drifted across the eyepiece reticle in the stationary meridian telescope by carefully recording when each star crossed the line, and where along the line the crossing point was.

Stars Transiting in a Meridian Telescope

One person observed through the telescope and called off the star’s brightness as each star crossed the line, noting the exact position along the reticle on a pad with a cardboard template so that the numbers could be written down without looking away from the telescope.  A second person, the recorder, noted the exact time of reticle crossing and the brightness called out by the observer.  In this way, two people were able to record the position and brightness of every star.

Each star was observed at least twice so that any errors could be detected and corrected.  In some areas of the Milky Way, as many as 30 stars would cross the reticle each minute.  What stamina and dedication it must have taken Argelander and his staff to make over 700,000 observations in just seven years!  Argelander’s catalogue is called the Bonner Durchmusterung and is still used by astronomers even today.  It was the last major star catalogue to be produced without the aid of photography.

Like Argelander’s small meridian telescope, the European Space Agency’s Gaia astrometric space observatory is currently measuring tens of thousands of stars each minute (down to mv = 20) as they transit across a large CCD array—the modern day equivalent of an eyepiece reticle.  But instead of utilizing the Earth’s rotation period relative to the background stars of 23h56m04s, Gaia’s twin telescopes separated by exactly 106.5° sweep across the stars as Gaia rotates once every six hours.  A slight precession in Gaia’s orientation ensures that the field of view is shifted so that there is only a little overlap during the next six-hour rotation.

When Gaia completes its ongoing mission, it will have measured the positions, distances, and 3D space motions of around a billion stars, not just twice but 70 times!

Though electronic computers do most of the work these days, someone still has to program them.  Some 450 scientists and software experts are immersed in the challenging task of converting raw data into scientifically useful information.

I’d like to conclude this entry with a quotation from Albert Einstein (1879-1955), who was born and died exactly 80 years after Argelander.

Many times a day I realize how much of my outer and inner life is built upon the labors of my fellowmen, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give as much as I have received.

I love that quote.  Words to live by.