In an era of stunning new maps of the canyons of Mars, the rugged terrain of the ocean bottom and the intricate human genome an international team of astronomers is undertaking the most ambitious map-making project yet: They are surveying the sky.
Tuesday, scientists released the first major results from the $80 million Sloan Digital Sky Survey. They include the discovery of the two most distant objects ever seen, more glimpses of the frothy network of galaxies that makes up the universe and, closer to home, a catalog of asteroids with the potential to one day hit Earth.
Scientists also released the first few pages of their new celestial gazetteer, 5 percent of an immense map that will eventually contain 30 trillion bytes more information than the Library of Congress with information on 200 million of the galaxies, quasars and celestial exotics that make up the universe.
"This will literally be the field guide to the heavens," said Mike Turner, a cosmologist at the University of Chicago The project, he predicted, will help scientists understand "the wondrous panoply of structure we see in the universe today."
The five-year project will eventually create high-resolution, five-color images of one-quarter of the entire sky. The information will be used to create a three-dimensional map of the universe that astronomers hope will reveal basic structures that will allow them to explain how the universe evolved.