SEATTLE – Google has already planted its flag on Earth, the Moon and Mars. The universe could be next.
The Internet search company has struck a partnership with scientists building a huge sky-scanning telescope, with hopes of helping the public access digital footage of asteroids, supernovas and distant galaxies.
"Frankly, I could see the day when they would be our sort of window to the general public," said Donald Sweeney, manager of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, or LSST, on Friday.
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Officials also say Google's technical expertise and vast data processing capacity will be an invaluable help, even for a project that has access to some of the country's leading research institutions.
The 8.4-meter LSST is expected to begin surveying the sky in 2013 from a mountaintop in Chile. Its goal is to continuously scan space, taking a series of 15-second exposures that allow it to cover the sky every three nights.
Officials say the telescope will open "a movie-like window" on nearby asteroids and far-off exploding stars, and help explore the mysterious dark energy believed to fuel the universe's expansion.
Google's stature should also bring the project more attention, which could be crucial as the $350 million telescope competes for public and private money.
In that respect, LSST officials may have learned a lesson from projects that have captured broader public imagination, such as the Hubble Space Telescope, said W. Henry Lambright, professor of public administration at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University.
"If they want to finance this thing and keep it going and maintained, they've got to make this not just the astronomers' telescope, but the people's telescope," he said.
The project has attracted at least $25 million in private donations and a four-year, $12 million grant from the National Science Foundation. Some of the 20 project partners also have supplied money, including about $1 million each from a half-dozen universities, Sweeney said.
Google's involvement hasn't been completely defined yet, Sweeney said. But the company that already offers detailed online maps of the Earth, the Moon and Mars could help analyze massive amounts of data — up to 30 terabytes a night — generated by the telescope.
But Google's involvement raises questions about whether it sees the resulting space images as a cash cow, said Stephen Maran, spokesman for the American Astronomical Society. He said, "Maybe they'll be selling ads next to the Orion Nebula or something."
Officials said there is no clear revenue stream for Google in the project, and said the company also isn't putting up money to help build the telescope itself.
"There is no licensing, there is no quid pro quo here," Sweeney said. "There's no financial incentive to them or to us."
Google spokesman Jon Murchinson said, "I don't think we entered into this partnership ... with an eye on how do we monetize our participation."