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Seminar

Statistics in astronomy: the Taiwanese-American occultation survey

Rice, J (UC Berkeley)
Friday 27 June 2008, 14:00-15:00

Seminar Room 1, Newton Institute

Abstract

More than a thousand small planetary bodies with radii >100 km have recently been detected beyond Neptune using large telescopes. The purpose of the TAOS project is to measure directly the number of these Kuiper Belt Objects (KBO’s) down to the typical size of cometary nuclei (a few km). When a KBO moves in between the earth and a distant star it will block the starlight momentarily, for about a quarter of a second. A telescope monitoring the starlight will thus see it blinking. Three small (20 inch) dedicated robotic telescopes equipped with 2,048 x 2,048 CCD cameras are operated in a coincidence so that the sequence and timing of the three separate blinks can be used to distinguish real events from false alarms. A fourth telescope will be added soon. TAOS will increase our knowledge about the Kuiper Belt, the home of most short period comets that return to the inner solar system every few years. This knowledge will help us to understand the formation and evolution of comets in the early solar system as well as to estimate their flux of impacting our home planet.

In this talk I will describe some of the statistical challenges that arise when hundreds or thousands of stars are simultaneously monitored every quarter of a second, every night of the year on which observation is possible, with the aim of detecting a few events. TAOS will produce a databank of the order of 10 terabytes per year, which is small by the standards of recent and future astronomical surveys. My intent in this talk is not to provide definitive methods of analysis but, rather, I hope that this concrete example of high dimensional non-Gaussian data informs the discussion of future directions in high dimensional data analysis to which this meeting is devoted.

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