From the Director of PPA: One Step Closer to Realizing LSST

June 15, 2012

The past month has been yet another busy one for the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) project, which recently underwent two reviews that are critical to moving the project forward. When completed and commissioned in 2021, the LSST will be poised to embark on a unique 10-year scientific survey of the universe that will transform astronomy and physics.

Every three nights, the LSST will record 2,400 panoramic images in a patchwork covering the entire sky visible from its Cerro Pachón site in northern Chile. In so doing, it will accumulate a movie of half of the sky, including about three billion galaxies, some as far as 12 billion light years away.

The 200 million billion bytes, or petabytes, of data thereby assembled over the lifetime of the telescope will provide an unprecedented data sample for astronomy and physics. Everything from determining the orbits of near-Earth asteroids to mapping our local portion of the Milky Way, to establishing the distribution of dark matter in the universe – and probing the nature of dark energy – will be accessible in this massively parallel astronomical gold mine.

The universe is dynamic, and for the first time we will be continuously watching for fleeting events, and who knows what will be discovered.

The LSST project team, supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) as the lead federal funding agency and the Office of High-Energy Physics at the Department of Energy, has been working for many years to design the telescope and its site in Chile, the camera and the data management system to meet these exciting science goals.

The pace of development has been particularly rapid over the past year, with many critical steps taken towards securing the funding needed to execute the project. Late last summer, the NSF conducted a Preliminary Design Review of its portion of the project, including the telescope, site and data management systems.

DOE held a Critical Decision-1 (CD-1) review in November for its portion of the project, the 3.2-gigapixel camera, with SLAC designated as the lead laboratory. Both reviews were extremely positive and both supported moving the project forward for a construction start in fiscal year 2014.

Subsequently, Bill Brinkman, director of the Office of Science, signed the CD-1 approval on April 12, allowing inclusion of the first installment of the $160 million LSST camera construction funding in the DOE FY2014 budget request.

Over the past month, two additional critical reviews have been undertaken in preparation for including the NSF project in the FY2014 request for the NSF Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction (MREFC) program. The NSF conducted a cost and schedule review May 15 and 16, resulting in endorsement of the final estimate of $466 million for the telescope and data management systems.

NSF and DOE then assembled an experienced team to conduct a Joint Interface and Management (JIM) review May 30 through June 1. The JIM team examined whether all interfaces between the camera, telescope and data management systems were understood and documented. They also looked closely at the tools available to flow down requirements from the science goals into technical design requirements and flow up achievable technical design capabilities to science goals.

These tools are critical for any large research construction project, which will need to understand and sometimes modify plans and designs to accommodate what is actually achievable while also maintaining science goals. The reviewers were once again extremely impressed with the maturity of the tools and the quality of the team in place to execute the LSST project.

These most recent reviews are the last step in a long road leading to a decision by the National Science Board, at its next meeting in July, on whether to include LSST in the FY2014 MREFC request. I have been extremely impressed with the quality of the DOE camera team and the LSST telescope and data management effort, and the growth in maturity of the entire project over the last year.

The LSST project team has passed every review hurdle with flying colors, responding to these challenges with a high degree of knowledge and professional care. They are now poised for the next phase of the project, assuming DOE and NSF construction funding in FY2014, and are eagerly looking forward to building the LSST facility and enabling the exciting science program offered by this unique instrument.