Home Arts Don’t look up at the starry night — look down

Don’t look up at the starry night — look down

by Robin Stanford March 18, 2014
Don’t look up at the starry night — look down

The Astronomy Legacy Project is working to preserve pictures of our galaxy on our screens

Looking up at a starry sky, it is easy to get lost in the immensity of it. When using a telescope of sufficient strength, every planet and galaxy becomes a unique and beautiful entity. For over 120 years these images have been recorded on glass plates. The Astronomy Legacy Project (ALP) aims to give the public access to over hundreds of thousands of plates online at no cost. To reach their goals, however, they need the public’s help.

Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI) is a non profit, educational organization committed to bringing the ALP to life. Founded in 1998 on a former NASA tracking site in North Carolina, the organization soon began exploring the possibility of archiving astronomical plates.

PARI has initiated a crowd-funding drive that will help make historic images of the night sky available via the Internet to the general public, scientists and students worldwide.

According to ALP’s principal investigator, Dr. Michael Castelaz, the collection of plates began with a gift of over 20,000 plates from a retiring professor. Since the initial donation, the archive is now home to over 220,000 plates with more being received from institutions across the continent.

The contents of these plates range from surfaces of planets to nebulas. Although the current offerings are in low resolution, one cannot help but be mesmerized by the intensity of the images. Halley’s comet racing through the sky is as impactful through a black and white photograph as it is seen in person.

Perhaps the most striking of these is a photograph in colour of two galaxies colliding. The star systems themselves appear red and yellow against a blue backdrop. Although physical motion cannot be captured in such a format, the plate feels emotionally charged and timeless.

As it was clear that ALP was privy to something so significant yet fragile, special care was taken to address the challenges that could prevent their longevity.

The immediate issue presented was how to preserve these images both in the short and long-term. Storage for the physical plates was possible in an unused building on the site, which NASA helped bring to archival standards. One problem persisted — how to save these images for further use and enjoyment. As all the plates stored at the facility are unique, should one break, the images are gone forever.

The ALP’s current project is to individually digitize these plates so as to preserve them for the long run. This will not be easy as there is no standardized format for the glass plates. They range in size from a few inches to two feet and can be rectangular or circular. Since they all differ, many machines that may be used to digitize the images would be ill-equipped for this purpose.

Currently, the ALP does have a machine donated by NASA that is capable of transferring one plate per hour. At this rate it would take over 100 years to digitize the plates they currently have during which time some specimens would be lost forever.

To speed up the process PARI has turned to crowdfunding to try to raise $60,000 for a more effective scanner, the OPTEK 463 VSM. When asked of the benefits of pursuing this funding source, Dr. Castelaz stated that the fundraiser is a great way to let people know about the project.

Crowdfunding, as opposed to government funding, allows for the immediate feedback of donors according to the director of the Astronomical Photographic Archive, (where the plates are stored), Thurburn Barker. Furthermore, appealing to the populous avoids issues such as the fiscal climate or political whims which may make government funding unavailable.

Since the public aspect of the project is present in every element, the turn to the community for support becomes logical. Public participation is a small request for such a wealth of free, public information for us and for future generations.

For more information about PARI and the Astronomy Legacy Project visit pari.edu. To view the current crowdfund visit indiegogo.com/projects/astronomy-legacy-project.

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