Google signs on to huge new telescope

Company presumably will provide search and portal to the high-res images and video that new telescope will capture.
Written by Richard Koman, Contributor

Google has struck a deal with NASA and leading research institutes to build a huge sky-scanning telescope that promises direct public access to photos and video of distant galaxies, the Associated Press reports.

"Google's ability to do large database queries and to service that data is unmatched, I would say," said Donald Sweeney, manager of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, or LSST.

The involvement of Google should provide the project a huge boost in terms of public support. That's important, said W. Henry Lambright, professor of public administration at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University.

"If they want to finance this thing and keep it going and maintained, they've got to make this not just the astronomers' telescope, but the people's telescope," Lambright said.

The LSST is expected to begin surveying the sky in 2013, from a mountaintop in Chile. It will a series of 15-second exposures that allow it to cover the sky every three nights. The project has attracted at least $25 million in private donations and a four-year, $12 million grant from the National Science Foundation. Some of the 20 project partners also have supplied money, including about $1 million each from a half-dozen universities, Sweeney said.

While Google's role hasn't been publicly discussed, it surely includes the company's expertise in analyzing huge amounts of data and making it searchable and easy to access. Some are concerned about what Google will get out of the deal but the company and the project both say, there's no financial angle.

"There is no licensing, there is no quid pro quo here," Sweeney said. "There's no financial incentive to them or to us."

"I don't think we entered into this partnership ... with an eye on how do we monetize our participation," Google spokesman Jon Murchinson said.

What's important is the viewfinder to the stars that Google can provide.

"Frankly, I could see the day when they would be our sort of window to the general public, and provide very large computer hosting and indexing capabilities," he said.

That would give the company potentially unrivaled engineering experience, said Al Teich, director of science and policy at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "This is, in fact, more than a good public relations move," Teich said.

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