The University of Colorado will participate in the fourth generation of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, a project at Apache Point, N.M., that maps stars,
The University of Colorado will participate in the fourth generation of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, a project at Apache Point, N.M., that maps stars, galaxies and quasars in three dimensions. (Photo courtesy of SDSS Team, Fermilab Visual Media Services)

Scientists and students at the University of Colorado are joining an ambitious galaxy-hunting project: The school will be part of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey that maps stars, galaxies and quasars.

The fourth generation of the survey is carried out by some of the world's top astronomers, and now CU students will have a chance to contribute their skills to the three-dimensional mapping of the celestial sky.

The effort began in 2000 with the initial stage of the survey and a goal of creating the largest digital color image of the northern sky, said Michael Shull, a CU astrophysical and planetary sciences professor.

"This is the fourth generation and will probably be the best yet because the instruments will be 10 times better," Shull said.

The project will take place from 2014 to 2020.

Since its inception, astronomers have mapped out about 50 percent of the northern sky, discovering nearly half a billion astronomical objects that range from asteroids and stars to galaxies and distant quasars.

Among the monumental Sloan discoveries was one in 2012 when astronomers detected the predicted signature of the first sound waves from matter and radiation in the early universe. They used a multi-fiber spectrograph as part of the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey -- or BOSS for short -- to detect the large-scale structures of ancient galaxies that were preserved following the Big Bang.

Shull said he expects the university's involvement in the Sloan survey will be a powerful recruiting tool for new students and will also help bring high-caliber graduate students and postdoctoral researchers to the university.

CU undergraduates, he said, will be able to help on computing projects and work with large astronomy data sets. He expects computer science students will get involved in the project.

"We generally get the best students -- the top third -- involved in research," he said. "This is going to open up an opportunity to students adept with working with big data."

Students will be analyzing the data to find new discoveries -- possibly galaxies or quasars.

CU will be a "full institutional partner" in the Sloan survey and will pay $1 million to participate in the project. University officials say the member fee is being paid for with university grants, awards, donations, general funds and indirect cost recovery savings. CU received a $350,000 discount from the Astrophysical Research Consortium, an organization of eight research institutions that includes CU.

The costs to build new instruments, make observations and crunch the data from the fourth Sloan survey will be about $50 million to $60 million. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation is pitching in about $10 million of that cost.

The Sloan telescope sky-mapping project is funded by the Sloan Foundation, the participating institutions, the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science.

Stein Sture, vice chancellor for research at CU, says the project contributes to CU's legacy in space. CU is the top-funded public university by NASA, has a $70 million instrument flying on the Hubble Space Telescope, is leading a $485 million mission to Mars and controls four NASA satellites from its campus, he said.

The Sloan survey's 2.5-meter telescope is located at the Apache Point Observatory in Sunspot, N.M., and is owned by the Astrophysical Research Consortium. The consortium was formed nearly 30 years ago as a way to create a national observatory that could provide telescope time to each member university. Apache Point also hosts other telescopes, including a 3.5-meter optical telescope that is often used by CU researchers.

The new optical spectrograph on the Sloan telescope can gather data from up to 1,000 galaxies or quasars simultaneously, Shull said. The instrument includes a circular aluminum plate roughly the size of a large pizza pan. It has 1,000 small perforations that are drilled to precisely match up with known astronomical objects in the sky, and each hole is plugged with an optical fiber.

Contact Camera Staff Writer Brittany Anas at 303-473-1132 or anasb@dailycamera.com.