New research of the Milky Way reveals 3.3 billion celestial bodies

This week, astronomers released new images of the Milky Way that offer an unprecedented view of an enormous slice of the galaxy, complete with star clusters, cosmic dust clouds and supermassive black hole Sagittarius A*.

The images released Wednesday, a product of the National Science Foundation’s dark energy camera — which captured two years of data with a telescope at the agency’s observatory in Chile — are the second of its kind from NSF’s Dark Energy Research. The project was mainly designed to observe and monitor the expansion of the universe. The survey revealed slightly more than 3.3 billion celestial bodies in the galactic plane of the Milky Way, marking the largest catalog ever produced by a single camera.

“This is quite a technical feat. Imagine a group photo of over three billion people and each individual is recognizable!” Debra Fischer, director of the division of astronomical sciences at NSF, said in a statement to the Harvard and Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “Astronomers will study this detailed portrait of more than three billion stars in the Milky Way for decades to come. It’s a great example of what partnerships between federal agencies can achieve.”

The dark energy camera, an instrument attached to the Víctor M. Blanco 4-metre Telescope at NSF’s Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Vicuña, studies the plane of the Milky Way from the southern sky’s vantage point in optical and near-infrared wavelengths. According to the federal agency, it produced more than 10 terabytes of data from 21,400 individual exposures during its most recent space exploration.

    / Credit: Credit: DECaPS2/DOE/FNAL/DECam/CTIO/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA Image processing: M. Zamani & D. de Martin (NSF's NOIRLab)

/ Credit: Credit: DECaPS2/DOE/FNAL/DECam/CTIO/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA Image processing: M. Zamani & D. de Martin (NSF’s NOIRLab)

NSF said the tool’s first data collection was released in 2017. Taken together, data collected during the first and second rounds of dark energy research now make up 6.5% of the night sky spanning a 130-degree length. This is a huge achievement, because most objects in the Milky Way are contained within the galaxy’s disk – seen as bright bands running horizontally across the center in images – and some features of the disk prevent astronomers from seeing objects clearly. The “numerous stars” also pose challenges to observing efforts, as they can overlap in images, according to the NSF.

AURA researcher Edward Schlafly explained that combining data collected during the 2014 cosmic survey PS1, led by the Pan-STARRS 1 Science Consortium, with images compiled using a dark energy camera could provide a wider view of the galaxy. -directed Space Telescope Science Institute, in a statement to NSF.

“When Pan-STARRS 1 is combined with DECaPS2 images [the dark energy camera] “With this new research, we complete a 360-degree panoramic view of the Milky Way disk and also reach much fainter stars,” said Schlafly, who is one of the authors of a paper describing DECaPS2 published in the Astrophysical Journal Supplement. The dimensional structure of the stars and dust of the Milky Way is in unprecedented detail.”

Scientists, astronomers, and members of the general public can explore the entire Dark Energy Survey’s dataset, including three-dimensional portraits of the galaxy, using an interactive online interface available here.

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