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First Data Release From UKIRT Infrared Deep Sky Survey

Zooming into one tiny section of the UKIDSS Ultra-Deep Survey, revealing a faint red galaxy thought to be 12-billion light-years away. The full survey covers a region approximately four times the area of the full moon. Image credit: Subaru Telescope/Kazuhiro Sekiguchi
by Staff Writers
Swindon, England (SPX) Jul 21, 2006
British astronomers announced Thursday they are releasing the first data from the largest and most sensitive survey of the heavens in infrared light to scientists across Europe.

The UKIRT Infrared Deep Sky Survey has completed the first of seven years of data collection, studying objects that are too faint to see at visible wavelengths, such as very distant or very cool objects.

New data on young galaxies are already challenging current thinking on galaxy formation, revealing galaxies that are massive at a much earlier stage of development than expected.

These first science results already show how powerful the full survey will be at finding rare objects that hold vital clues to how stars and galaxies in our Universe formed.

UKIDSS will make an atlas of large areas of the sky in the deep infrared. This survey will reveal more cool and faint objects than astronomers have ever been able to see before.

It also will detect objects at the very edge of the known universe. UKIDSS is being conducted by UK astronomers working with Japanese and ESO astronomers. The data are being shared with astronomers across Europe through ESO.

"Astronomers across Europe will jump on these exciting new data," said Andy Lawrence from the University of Edinburgh, the UKIDSS principal investigator.

"We are moving into new territory - our survey is both wide and deep, so we are mapping huge volumes of space," Lawrence added. "That's how we will locate rare objects - the very nearest and smallest stars, and young galaxies at the edge of the universe."

The UKIDSS data were collected by the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope located near the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii using the Wide Field Camera built by the United Kingdom Astronomy Technology Center in Edinburgh, Scotland.

WFCAM is the most powerful infrared imager in the world. It generates enormous amounts of data - 150 gigabytes per night (equivalent to more than 200 CDs) - and approximately 10.5 Terrabytes in total so far, or 15,000 CDs.

A small amount of data was released in January 2006 and already teams led by Omar Almaini at the University of Nottingham and Nigel Hambly of the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh are beginning to reveal some of the secrets of star and galaxy formation.

The Ultra Deep Survey team has been looking at distant galaxies by surveying the same region of sky night after night to see deeper and to find these very faint objects.

This survey will be 100 times larger than any similar survey attempted to date and will cover an area four times the size of the full Moon.

So far, the survey has detected several hundred thousand galaxies and among the early discoveries, nine remarkable galaxies have been found that appear to be 12-billion light-years away - or less than 2-billion years after the Big Bang.

The newly discovered galaxies are unusual, the researchers said, because they appear very massive for their age. This challenges thinking on how galaxies form, because it was thought large galaxies form gradually over billions of years as smaller components merge together.

The team has been using the UKIDSS data to discover more about very cold objects called brown dwarfs, which are formed in the same way as stars but typically have less than 8 percent of the mass of the Sun (or approximately 80 times the mass of Jupiter).

This is not large enough for core nuclear reactions to occur, and so brown dwarfs do not shine like normal stars. Brown dwarfs give off less than one ten thousandth of the radiation of a star like the Sun.

This relatively tiny amount of heat can be detected by WFCAM and the UKIDSS survey hopes to find out how many of these failed stars there are in our Galaxy.

Only a few hundred of these enigmatic objects have been found previously, but the UKIDSS survey should establish if they are rare or a relatively common phenomenon.

This large study of brown dwarfs will reveal the true scale of the link between the smallest normal stars and large gas planets, such as Jupiter.

The team at the Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge has automated the processing of the huge amount of data produced by the surveys.

More than 2 million images have been analyzed so far, with the team tasked with removing instrumental artifacts, cataloging the thousands of objects visible on each frame and providing quality measures for the 10,000 images produced per night.

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ESO Sub-Millimeter Astronomy Fully Underway
Paranal, Chile (SPX) Jul 20, 2006
ESO has announced that its Atacama Pathfinder Experiment 12-meter sub-millimeter telescope is fully operational and is providing access to the "Cold Universe" with unprecedented sensitivity and image quality.

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