The Sloan Digital Sky Survey has changed the face of astronomy. Now the subject of a feature article by SDSS spokesperson Karen Masters (Haverford College) in the January 2023 issue of Sky & Telescope, this survey first brought the field into the realm of Big Data, turning astronomers into data scientists, and opening our view of the universe in the process. The results have even reverberated beyond science and into art.

Below, you'll find views from SDSS, behind-the-scenes footage of the survey in action, and an artistic rendition of the results.

Galaxies and Asteroids

Fly through the universe with an animation made possible via SDSS's vast galaxy catalog:

Then zoom in for a look at the asteroids SDSS has found in the solar system:

Behind the Scenes

There's a lot that goes into creating catalogs of millions of galaxies and hundreds of thousands of solar system bodies. The three videos below show some aspects of this effort.

A Night of Observing

Plate-Drilling and Plate-plugging

Collecting spectra of celestial objects requires that engineers drill coffee-table-size metal circles, called plug plates, full of holes: one hole for each object to be observed.

Then, others plug each hole of these plates with a fiber-optic cable to capture the celestial light and turn it into a rainbow.

“The Center is Everywhere”

After use, the plug plates have gone to SDSS team members and educators, and even to artists. (Educators: Visit SDSS's education site to see about getting your own plug plate and teaching plan!) Even as teachers use the plug plates to demonstrate the process of science and the importance of its results, artists do much the same, but in different ways and with new interpretations.

Artist Josiah McElheny used an SDSS plug plate as the centerpiece of a sculpture titled "The Center is Everywhere." The title references the cosmological principle that there's no special place (or center) in the universe — in which case the center is indeed everywhere. Read more about this intersection between art and science.

Glass and light hang on golden strands from an SDSS plug plate
Full view (left) and detail (right) of a sculpture built by Josiah McElheny in 2012, designed in collaboration with David Weinberg and based on the structure of SDSS’s 1,945th spectroscopic plug plate. The sculpture is made of brass, steel, three forms of cut lead crystals (representing stars, disk galaxies, and elliptical galaxies), and electric bulbs (representing quasars).
Josiah McElheny

To read more about the SDSS revolution and legacy, check out Sky & Telescope's January 2023 issue!


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