The Google Astronomer

When he wasn't busy developing the JAVA programming language at Sun Microsystems or managing the work of Google's army of software engineers, Wayne Rosing liked to build telescopes.

Telescopes have been a hobby for Rosing since he was a teenager, and astronomy was Rosing's gateway into physics, math and computer programming. Now, recently retired from Google where he was the company's vice president of Engineering, Rosing will turn his attention to a unique telescope project that will provide scientists with a wider, faster, and deeper view of the universe than current telescopes allow.

Throughout his career, Rosing has held management positions at some of the biggest names in the computer industry, including Sun Microsystems, Apple and Google. Despite it all, however, Rosing never outgrew his interest in astronomy. During a break in the mid-1990s, Rosing took a two-year hiatus and traveled to Chile, where he helped build a robotic telescope that mapped the matter and energy filling the space between the stars. Rosing also founded the Las Cumbres Observatory near his home in Santa Barbara, California.

An engineer and manager his entire professional life, Rosing enjoyed the change of pace that being an astronomer and scientist provided. "It's really fun to change gears, write software, get on machines and assemble parts," Rosing said. "It's a real pleasure."

In May of this year, Rosing was named the first senior fellow in mathematical and physical sciences at the University of California, Davis. As part of the position, Rosing will work with Anthony Tyson, a physics professor at UC Davis, on the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST). The LSST will be a ground-based telescope that combines a wide field of view and an extremely sensitive digital camera—capable of producing 3,000 megapixel images—to provide scientists with a new way of looking at the universe. The LSST is expected to be ready for first light by 2012. While Rosing's exact duties are still being determined, Tyson said Rosing's background will be very useful for extracting knowledge and understanding from the deluge of information expected to pour in from the telescope each night.

The LSST was initially conceived in 1998 as a way to map asteroids and other space objects that stray too close to earth, but its mission was expanded to search for clues about the nature of dark matter and dark energy, a mysterious substance and force that are believed to permeate the universe but which scientists know very little about.

"The [LSST] will help us understand the development of dark matter over cosmic time and help us pin down the nature of dark energy," Tyson told SPACE.com.

It will do this by scanning the universe for evidence of gravity lensing, a process by which a massive celestial object warps the fabric of space-time so much that light streaming from distant objects are forced to bend around it. As a result, gravitational mirages are produced, whereby distant luminous objects, like stars or even entire galaxies, are distorted or appear to shift their positions. Stranger still, they may be projected multiple times upon the night sky.

Using gravitational lensing, astronomers can examine objects that would normally be hidden from view, obstructed by the object that is acting as the lens. This allows them to peer deeper into the universe—and thus, father back in time—than would otherwise be possible. Furthermore, by working backwards and asking what kind of object might be causing the observed distortion, astronomers can glean information about the lensing bodies themselves, which can include galaxy clusters and dark matter.

"A clump of dark matter will have mass, and if it is a big enough clump, it will have a big mass and will actually bend light from the background, moving it to new places in the sky," Tyson explained.

By measuring the amount of distortion caused by dark matter as a result of gravity lensing, scientists can map its distribution in the universe and tell something about how it developed over the eons.

The LSST is also expected to shed some light on dark energy, the mysterious force believed to be wrenching the universe apart and speeding up its expansion. Information gathered from the LSST will be used to construct a 3D map of the universe, complete with the precise location of billions of galaxies. Measuring the speed at which these galaxies are speeding away from each other over time will give scientists an idea of how much dark energy the universe contains.

The LSST will also be able to detect transient sources of luminosity, brief flashes of light that flare in and out of existence too quickly for most telescopes to pick up clearly. It is this last application of the LSST that Rosing is most excited about.

"I'm personally interested in how we are going to systematically classify all these [transient] phenomenon and figure out what the universe is telling us," Rosing said.

Because the LSST will be capable of covering the entire night sky once every three days, each patch of sky will be revisited numerous times. This will allow scientists to survey the universe on time scales that were previously impossible.

Rosing is thrilled to be working on the project and expects it will keep him remarkably busy. "They should call it refired instead of retired."