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TCU Among Schools Working To Map The Universe

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(credit: KTVT/KTXA) Joel Thomas
Joel is an Emmy Award winning journalist with more than 15 year...
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FORT WORTH (CBS 11 NEWS) – If Google Earth is an impressive use of technology, then what Texas Christian University’s Astronomy Department is helping with will blow your mind.

TCU is working with 40 institutions worldwide as part of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey to make the biggest map that can be made — a map of the universe.

“For numbers of galaxies we’re talking in the millions,” said Peter Frinchaboy, one of two TCU astronomers working on the map. “For stars in the Milky Way we’re doing it actually in much more detail because we’re also looking at individual chemical elements, but we’re talking in the neighborhood of half a million stars by the end of this survey project.”

Frinchaboy picked up a three feet wide aluminum disc dotted with a thousand, precisely drilled tiny holes. Each hole on the disc represented a galaxy in a small portion of the sky.

“So each one of these is fed with a fiber optic which is about the size of a human hair,” Frinchaboy said of the tiny holes.

One of the discs used to map the universe. Each hole represents a galaxy in a small portion of the night sky. (credit: Joel Thomas/CBS 11 NEWS)

One of the discs used to map the universe. Each hole represents a galaxy in a small portion of the night sky. (credit: Joel Thomas/CBS 11 NEWS)

The plates are put into telescopes and pointed toward the galaxies or star field represented on the disc. That way, a thousand fiber optic wires on each plate study a thousand galaxies or stars at a time.

“In terms of a survey, you can’t really take the time to do it one at a time,” Frinchaboy said. “So, this way we can do it a thousand objects at a time so you can…greatly speed up what’s possible.”

So far, they’ve made 7,500 plates.

TCU studies data from two telescopes, one in New Mexico and one in Chile. Each is able to gather two terabytes of information a night. And speaking unscientifically — a terabyte is a ton of information.

“It’s tricky because you’re looking at more than three dimensions,” Frinchaboy said of interpreting the data. “So, you’re looking spatially, so you’re looking at where it is and how far it is. But you’re also looking at the other dimensions of speed and chemistry. So, it’s a little more complicated to see!”

As the scientists delve deeper into the universe they’re not only studying how the universe is expanding but how it began as well.

“The further away you look, the further back in time you look,” Frinchaboy said. “Well, we’re trying to look back almost to the Big Bang.”

Frinchaboy said the mapping process generates as much scientific information in a year as the Hubble Telescope. And it takes students and astronomers like those at TCU these to sift through the information and create a map of our place in the cosmos.

(©2014 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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