Astronomy Legacy Project

Unveiling stellar masterpieces from astronomy's analog age
Michael Castelaz, Ph.D.
Rosman, North Carolina
United States
8 Team Members


Even though the campaign has ended, donations are still welcome for this project at  Click on the donate button and when it asks for a message put in Astronomy Legacy Project.  Thanks to everyone who has donated!  You have made this project possible!  
See the most recent UpDate to this project campaign for information about the plans with partial funding.  
    - M. Castelaz.  31 March 2014.
Before the invention of digital cameras in the 1990's, and for more than 120 years before that, astronomers put in several million telescope hours photographing the night sky - measuring star brightnesses, detecting comets, planets, nebulae, mapping our Galaxy, and building the foundations of our understanding of our Universe!  All of this raw beauty, and secrets yet to be discovered, are held as largely unexplored photographic images on thin, fragile pieces of glass.  Imagine digitizing these hundreds of thousands of photographic images with such high precision that the images appearing on your screen replicates the original. This digitization process is the heart of the Astronomy Legacy Project.

The Astronomy Legacy Project (ALP) will digitize the extensive and diverse set of twentieth century analog (photographic) astronomical data housed at the Astronomical Photographic Data Archive and make it available to the twenty-first century digital world.  Funding will help us to purchase the OPTEK 463 VSM, a highly precise scanning machine that we have chosen to do the digitizing. A staff member will receive 10% of the funding who is responsible for administration of the scanning process with volunteers.

Your donation will honor and preserve the legacy of generations of astronomers and inspire the next generation of space science enthusiasts and people everywhere who are inspired by the mystery and beauty of the night sky!

All supporters in this new project will receive perks plus recognition on the Astronomy Legacy Project Wall of Fame (if desired) to be posted on the ALP website. We have forty-five days to raise the money to fully operate the Astronomy Legacy Project. The Astronomical Photographic Data Archive is part of the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI), a 501(c)3 nonprofit. All donations to this project are tax deductible to the full extent allowable by law.

[Photographic plate image of the colliding galaxies NGC 6769, 6770, and 6771. These galaxies are located 190 million light years away. The photograph was taken September 21, 1954 using the 74-inch telescope at Radcliffe Observatory.]


Crossing the Threshold to 21st Century Astronomy with a 20th Century Legacy 

Our Astronomical Photographic Data Archive (APDA) contains more than 40 astronomical photographic plate collections from institutions and observatories in North America totaling more than 220,000 plates dating back to 1898. APDA is growing larger every year as other observatories and institutions store their collections with us. The goal of ALP is to make APDA a resource harnessed by present and future generations of astronomers, bringing 20th century analog astronomy into the 21st century digital world. We envision astronomers, students, and the general public benefiting from ALP as new research is made possible by access to the abundance of rich, high quality astronomical data now available only in analog form.

Digitizing the plates is the only way to forever preserve these 1,000 terabytes of data acquired and left as a legacy to us by our greatest scientists studying the night sky, and sharing with future explorers a time machine to the past night sky.

- Digitizing Plans -

Even though the collections are well-preserved, we realize that 21st century scientists and general public demand an online, virtual observatory workplace.  To build this online, virtual observatory, we have chosen a modern digitizing machine to scan these historic and irreplaceable photographs. 

The digitizing project will be accomplished using the OPTEK 463 VSM,  a highly precise scanning machine (90% of project costs) and support a staff member (10% of project costs) who is responsible for managing and coordinating with volunteers who will do the digitizing.

Photographs will be digitized using the state-of-the-art OPTEK scanning machine that will duplicate the original images precisely, with little error in image densities, shapes, and locations on the original emulsions. One plate (8x10 or 20cm x 25cm) is digitized in 5 minutes. The OPTEK machine is designed for precise machine vision industrial applications which we are adapting to a new use.

[Shown here is the OPTEK 463 VSM with one of our plates and digitized image of colliding galaxies NGC 2207 from the plate. The detail in the digitized image replicates what we see on the plate itself.]

The commemorating project will allow digitizing the Warner-Swasey Observatory collection of 14,500 plates which span 50 years from 1942-1992 and contain some of the most exotic objects in the universe like carbon stars and quasars! The plates were taken with a Schmidt telescope which means they are of the highest astrophotographic quality.We will digitize 500 plates/week and complete the digitization of this collection within 7 months from the time we begin. Including time to acquire and setup the digitizing machine, we expect that the collection will be completely digitized by December 31, 2014.

Once the Warner-Swasey collection is completed, the next collection we plan to digitize is a rare set of 385 large (14-inch x 14-inch or 35 cm x 35 cm) plates taken from 1949 -1952.; The astronomer who took these plates was searching for the very youngest stars in our Milky Way Galaxy. We anticipate the discovery of many unusual astronomical objects on these absolutely beautiful photographic images that might otherwise remain undiscovered without digitization. Digitizing these plates allows us to use sophisticated computer image processing techniques unveiling these hidden treasures. We expect to have these plates completely digitized by March 15, 2015.

[A short video showing the digitizing machine in use.]


The digitized images and catalogs of images will be released and accessible to the public online through the Astronomy Legacy Project website after digitization of a collection is complete. As a supporter of the Astronomy Legacy Project, you will have access to the very first digitized images and database access as digitizing proceeds, before an entire collection is complete. With larger donations, images will be named for you or someone else if you wish, and for even larger donations you will have the opportunity to digitized your own plates, and even a VIP one-on-one site tour and chance to digitize plates with us!

The digitized images will be stored in several formats including TIFF, JPEG, and FITS on the 400 TB storage system located in the PARI Data Center. This storage system has a backup system off-campus, so the data is well protected. The metadata to search through the images will include original date of observation and the coordinates of the centers of the images, plus the digitization setup conditions that includes camera specifications, steps sizes, and image overlap conditions.



We are fully committed to seeing the Astronomy Legacy Project through to full funding. With full funding, we can afford the OPTEK 463 VSM digitizing machine and begin the project as planned.

With partial funding we can reconfigure our Astrometric Measuring Instrument (AMI) to digitize plates.  But, one 8x10 (20cm x 25cm) plate would take about 1.5 hours to digitize a plate, compared to 5 minutes with the state-of-the-art OPTEK 463 VSM machine. AMI's origin is from the Space Telescope Science Institute where it was used in the 1980's to measure the positions of 19 million stars that are used to point the Hubble Space Telescope at objects in space. We acquired this machine about 5 years ago and refurbished it for the Minor Planet Project where it is once again used to measure positions of stars. AMI is not a digitizing machine, rather it jumps from star to star on a photographic image and measures the locations of the stars on a plate. 

If the Astronomy Legacy Project receives partial funding we can reconfigure AMI with a camera and special telecentric lens and rewrite the software to digitize plates. After we secure the camera and lens, and through future grant and crowdfunding campaigns, we would secure the OPTEK machine and adapt the camera and lens to that machine so we could digitize a plate in 5 minutes. So, the project will be done, but we would have to very careful about prioritizing plate collections for digitization - and be much more patient!


The Team

The Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute staff and their responsibilities on this project include:

  • Director, Astronomical Photographic Data Archive, will prioritize collections to be digitized
  • Chief Information Officer will allocate and maintain the 400 TB of storage available for this project in the PARI Data Center
  • Site Support Engineer will help maintain the functionality of the digitizing machine
  • Instrument Scientist will develop and maintain the data pipeline for storage and access to the digitized images
  • Education Director will use the digitized images in new and existing PARI education curricula
  • Science Director will oversee the entire project
  • Volunteers from the Friends of PARI network who will help digitize the plates


Other Ways You Can Help

The Astronomy Legacy Project belongs to everyone. If you want to participate in ways other than a donation, some help with social networking for support would be a great contribution. Or let us know of other resources we have missed. To help get the word out, the Indiegogo share tools are a good place to start.

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raised by 144 people in 1 month
34% funded
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Verified Nonprofit
$60,000 USD goal
Flexible Funding This campaign has ended and will receive all funds raised.
Campaign Closed
This campaign ended on March 27, 2014
Select a Perk
  • $10USD

    You receive a bookmark with a photo digitized from an astronomical photographic plate taken in the 1980’s. A description of the image – where it was taken, by who, and the name and type of the celestial object are included on the bookmark.

    9 claimed
    Estimated delivery: October 2014
  • $20USD
    4x6 print

    You receive the previous reward, plus a 4x6 photographic print digitized from an astronomical photographic plate taken in the 1970’s. The print will include a certificate of authenticity with a description of the photographic plate from which it was digitized. The description includes the name and type of celestial object, where the image was taken, by whom, and when.

    16 claimed
    Estimated delivery: October 2014
  • $40USD
    8x10 print

    You receive the previous rewards, plus an 8x10 photographic print digitized from an astronomical photographic plate taken in the 1960’s. The print will be selected by you from a list provided by the Astronomy Legacy Project Team. The print will include a certificate of authenticity with a description of the photographic plate from which it was digitized. The description includes the name and type of celestial object, where the image was taken, by whom, and when.

    44 claimed
    Estimated delivery: October 2014
  • $75USD
    Direct Access

    You receive the previous rewards, plus a link to a shared drive from which you can select 10 images for download to your tablet, phone or computer. The selection of images will include all images digitized from astronomical photographic images taken in the between the 1940’s and 1980’s.

    13 claimed
    Estimated delivery: August 2014
  • $125USD

    You receive the previous rewards, plus an exclusive T-shirt with the Astronomy Legacy Project Logo and a photographic image of the Eta Carina nebula taken in 1976 using the 4-m telescope at Cerro Tololo InterAmerican Observatory. This nebula is famous because it is expected to become a supernova in the astronomically near future.

    25 claimed
    Estimated delivery: August 2014
  • $300USD
    Skype Session

    You receive the previous rewards plus a Skype discussion with the Astronomy Legacy Project Team with the opportunity to select and digitize a plate by remote access. Plates will go back to the 1900’s. Who knows what you will discover on your photographic plate! Your digitized image will be named after you, and will be transferred to your tablet, phone, or computer in real-time.

    1 claimed
    Estimated delivery: August 2014
  • $1,000USD

    You, and a guest, receive the previous rewards plus the opportunity for a VIP one-on-one on-site tour and lunch with the Astronomy Legacy Project Team. You also will be invited as part of the tour to explore the collections of 220,000 photographic plates, select up to a dozen plates, and digitize them yourself! These images will be named after you, and will be transferred to your tablet, phone, or computer in real-time. Travel and housing is not included.

    5 claimed
    Estimated delivery: October 2014
  • $1,500USD

    You, and a guest, receive the previous rewards plus 2 nights housing on the PARI campus during your visit. Travel is not included.

    1 claimed
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