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.
Astronomers just spotted a brand-new supernova mere hours after it exploded, thanks to a robotic telescope and some smart computer algorithms. Now they’re scrambling to use as many telescopes as possible, on Earth and in space, to observe the star’s death throes.
Doomsdayers and 2012 blog-keepers, take note. Astronomers at this week's American Astronomical Society meeting revealed that a massive white dwarf star in the throes of multiple nova is much closer to our solar system than once thought. When it does finally collapse into a type Ia supernova -- okay, if it collapses into a type Ia supernova -- the resulting thermonuclear blast will destroy life on earth. Seriously.