A story that starts with this opening line absolutely gets my attention:
"SUNSPOT, N.M. -- It's fair to say that Dan Long has seen more of the universe than anyone but God."
It goes on to add:
"Month after month, year after year, Long has sat in a windowless room atop a windy mountain peak, watching the heavens scroll by on 12 monitors connected to the Apache Point Observatory's 98-inch telescope.
He saw stars, galaxies and clusters of galaxies banded together like giant herds of animals on an unending savanna roll by. Less frequently, exotic denizens of deep space would pop up -- blinding quasars and supernovae, flaring up as brightly on the bank of TV screens as entire galaxies."
And we get to understand the true scope of this endeavor:
"This summer, after eight years of charting the
cosmos, Long and his colleagues completed the deepest, most
comprehensive map of the heavens ever produced.
Known as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, it is a remarkable three-dimensional model of the universe that allows an observer to travel, as if by rocket ship, from the dwarf galaxies hugging the skirts of the Milky Way to the frontier campfires of the most distant quasars, blazing billions of light-years away.
In its 5 terabytes of data are 217 million individual objects, including 800,000 galaxies (which themselves contain billions of stars and planets) and 100,000 quasars -- creatures once so rare and strange that they weren't even detected until 1962.
"Nobody's ever done anything like this before," said Bruce Gillespie, administrator of the Astrophysical Research Consortium, made up of 300 astronomers who helped carry out the $100-million sky-mapping project. "They'll still be looking at this data in 50 years."