CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In the basement of a quaintly cramped building on the Harvard University campus, down a set of corkscrew stairs that would make a rollercoaster designer dizzy, the shelves and filing cabinets are spilling over with 100 years of stars. Glass photographic plates shipped from telescopes around the world document the Beehive Cluster as it appeared in 1890, or Cepheid variable stars as they looked in 1908. The glass plates — some 525,000 of them — serve as the only permanent record of the skies as seen by our forebears.
But the 170-ton database represents much more than an archive of astronomical history — it’s a potential gold mine for new discoveries, if only scientists could dig through it. With that goal in mind, a small collection of astronomers and archivists is using custom-built technology to bring this enormous data set into the digital age.