In 2010, the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) was fired up and pointed towards the heavens. Equipped with the biggest astronomical camera in the world, with a resolution of 1.4 gigapixels, Pan-STARRS1 scanned the sky many times over four years, in different wavelengths of light. Over that time it gathered a colossal 2 petabytes of data, and now the scientists behind the project are making all of it available to the public.

From its vantage point at the top of Haleakala, Maui, Hawaii, the Pan-STARRS1 observatory surveyed the sky using five different filters across the visible and near-infrared spectrum of light. Scanning 12 times with each of those filters, the telescope hunted for any moving, transient or variable objects – in particular, watching for any asteroids on a potential collision course with Earth.

"Pan-STARRS has made discoveries from Near Earth Objects and Kuiper Belt Objects in the Solar System to lonely planets between the stars," says Dr. Ken Chambers, Director of the Pan-STARRS Observatories. "It has mapped the dust in three dimensions in our galaxy and found new streams of stars; and it has found new kinds of exploding stars and distant quasars in the early universe."

The end result is data from 3 billion separate sources, such as stars, galaxies and other space objects. It's all being housed in the Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST), which contains data from missions like Hubble, Kepler, GALEX and other NASA initiatives, from as far back as the 1970s. And beginning this week, all of that Pan-STARRS information will become freely available for the public to peruse.

"The Pan-STARRS1 Surveys allow anyone to access millions of images and use the database and catalogs containing precision measurements of billions of stars and galaxies," says Chambers. "With this release we anticipate that scientists – as well as students and even casual users – around the world will make many new discoveries about the universe from the wealth of data collected by Pan-STARRS."

The rollout begins with the "Static Sky" (above), a compressed view of the whole sky that's visible from the Pan-STARRS1 Observatory. Based on half a million exposures of 45 seconds each, the image is made up of the average value of each attribute of each object, including its position, brightness and color. The yellowish arc is the disk of the Milky Way, and the reddish-brown swirls are its dust lanes. Those highlights are set against a backdrop of billions of faint stars and galaxies.

The strange shape of the image comes from flattening the celestial sphere, in the same way making a 2D map of Earth distorts it. While it might not look very detailed on your monitor, this is just a relatively low-resolution version of the image. The researchers say that if it was to be printed at full resolution, it would stretch 1.5 miles (2.4 km) wide, and probably still require a magnifying glass to see the finest details hidden within.

But the Static Sky is just a simple, visual representation of the Pan-STARRS effort. The team plans to follow it up with the release of all the raw data and images used to create the map, which will be available on the Pan-STARRS1 archive in May 2017.

The video below outlines the project, and explains why the scientists are releasing the data.

View gallery - 2 images