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January 3, 2008 10:14 AM

Simonyi, Gates funding ginormous Chilean space camera

Posted by Brier Dudley

The old Microsoft pals and Medina neighbors are donating $30 million to the Large Synaptic Survey Telescope project, a public-private venture building a fantastic telescope that will be installed on a mountaintop in Chile.

Apparently local billionaires have a thing for big space telescopes ...

Bill Gates donated $10 million and Simonyi donated $20 million.

The telescope will include the world's largest digital camera - a 3200 megapixel model - that will take weekly photos of the entire visible universe. Some 2,000 images taken over 10 years will be assembled to create a "movie" of the universe.

It will acquire 30 terabytes of data per night, building a 150 petabyte database that will be made available to anyone, professionals and amateurs, with a simple system for making queries.

LSST Director Anthony Tyson, a professor at the University of California, Davis, said the billionaires' support will "lead to a transformation in the way we study the universe."

Too bad it wasn't done in time to take a picture of Simonyi orbiting the earth last year.

Components are now being developed at the University of Arizona. The 8.4-meter telescope will be operating by 2014.

LSST said the telescope "will survey the entire visible sky deeply in multiple colors every week with its three-billion pixel digital camera, probing the mysteries of Dark Matter and Dark Energy, and opening a movie-like window on objects that change or move."

Simonyi's quote in the release:

"What a shock it was when Galileo saw in his telescope the phases of Venus, or the moons of Jupiter, the first hints of a dynamic universe. Today, by building a special telescope-computer complex, we can study this dynamism in unprecedented detail. LSST will produce a database suitable for answering a wide range of pressing questions: What is dark energy? What is dark matter? How did the Milky Way form? What are the properties of small bodies in the solar system? Are there potentially hazardous asteroids that may impact the earth causing significant damage? What sort of new phenomena have yet to be discovered?"

The Gates quote:

"LSST is just as imaginative in its technology and approach as it is with its science mission. LSST is truly an internet telescope, which will put terabytes of data each night into the hands of anyone that wants to explore it. Astronomical research with LSST becomes a software issue - writing code and database queries to mine the night sky and recover its secrets. The 8.4 meter LSST telescope and the three gigapixel camera are thus a shared resource for all humanity - the ultimate network peripheral device to explore the universe. It is fun for Charles and me to be a team again supporting this work given all we have done together on software projects."

I wonder if there's a rivalry between them and Paul Allen, who is underwriting another huge telescope in California that began searching for extraterrestrial life and technology in October. Allen donated $25 million to initiate the project of the SETI Institute and the University of California, Berkeley. Nathan Myhrvold also chipped in.

Here's a rendering of the telescope Gates and Simonyi are funding:


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Gadgets and games | Fun stuff I've written about lately includes Apple's iPhone, Hewlett-Packard's HDX laptop and Microsoft's Halo3. Also on the radar are new digital video boxes such as the Tivo HD and the Vudu.