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Datamining the universe, Case joins Sloan Digital Sky Survey

Case Western Reserve University has joined one of the most ambitious mapping projects ever attempted —the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS). As an institutional member of the survey, Case will collaborate with researchers around the world to mine information about the universe and its stars and galaxies.

“I feel like a kid in a candy store,” said Heather Morrison, Case associate professor of astronomy who will become the lead scientist for Case in the survey. “There is so much data in the SDSS database. The richness of the information that we can now access is astounding.”

In its first phase, the survey looked at the north quadrant of the universe and determined the position and brightness of more than 100 million celestial objects.

The work of the survey has expanded into three areas—Legacy, which continues to map galaxies and quasars; Segue, which focuses on stars; and thirdly, Supernovae, which explores the distant exploding stars which are particularly useful for cosmology.

The Case membership provides access to this enormous database not only for campus astronomers but for physicists interested in cosmology and statisticians working with large data sets.

Currently the astronomy faculty collects data through the use of its 24/36-inch telescope on Kitt Peak in Arizona and other larger telescopes around the world.

The Kitt Peak instrument views just over one square degree of the sky at a time. Information collected from the 2.5 meter SDSS Telescope in Sunspot, N.M., covers 10,000 square degrees of the sky or 15 terabytes (trillion bytes) of information. This amount of information rivals what is found in the Library of Congress.

“This database is many, many orders of magnitude larger than any we could obtain with our telescope,” added Morrison.

She added, “I think large surveys are the way of the future for astronomy—going to a database instead of telescope.”

Initially the astronomy department at Case sought membership in the SDSS to prepare for the arrival of Idit Zehavi, who will join the department next January as an assistant professor. The SDSS membership also will help the department attract graduate students and offer undergraduates increased research opportunities.

Zehavi has mined the Sloan data for information about the large scale structure of the universe in her work as a research associate at Steward Observatory of the University of Arizona. She has also had postdoctoral appointments at the University of Chicago and Fermilab, outside of Chicago.

The arrival of the new astronomer, who earned her doctoral degree from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, will have the additional advantage of making Case astronomy one of the very few astronomy departments in the world where half of its faculty members are women scientists, said Morrison.

 

About Case Western Reserve University

Case is among the nation's leading research institutions. Founded in 1826 and shaped by the unique merger of the Case Institute of Technology and Western Reserve University, Case is distinguished by its strengths in education, research, service, and experiential learning. Located in Cleveland, Case offers nationally recognized programs in the Arts and Sciences, Dental Medicine, Engineering, Law, Management, Medicine, Nursing, and Social Work. http://www.case.edu.