Billions of celestial bodies captured in new Milky Way survey

Billions of celestial bodies captured in new Milky Way survey

Billions of celestial bodies captured in new Milky Way survey

Astronomers have released a new overview of the Milky Way that includes 3.3 billion celestial objects. (NOIR Lab)

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ATLANTA – A new survey of the Milky Way galaxy has revealed 3.3 billion celestial objects.

Our galaxy is teeming with hundreds of billions of stars, dark pillars of dust and gas, and gleaming stellar nurseries where stars are born. Now astronomers have documented those marvels in unprecedented detail during the Dark Energy Camera Plane Survey, which captured 21,400 individual exposures over two years.

The survey, which marks the program’s second data release since 2017, is the largest catalog of Milky Way objects to date. The Dark Energy Camera, located on the Víctor M. Blanco 4-meter telescope at the National Science Foundation’s Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, captured data for the study.

The telescopes there are at an altitude of about 2,200 feet and can observe the southern sky in great detail across visible and near-infrared wavelengths of light. The two data releases from the Dark Energy Camera Plane Survey cover 6.5% of the night sky. Astronomers will be able to use the data release to better map the 3D structure of the galaxy’s dust and stars.

“This is quite an engineering feat. Imagine a group shot of more than three billion people and every individual is recognizable,” Debra Fischer, division director of astronomical sciences at the National Science Foundation, said in a statement.

“Astronomers will be poring over this detailed portrait of more than three billion stars in the Milky Way for decades to come. This is a fantastic example of what federal agency partnerships can achieve.”

On Wednesday, a new image of the celestial objects captured by the survey was released, showing stars and dust on the Milky Way’s bright galactic disk. The spiral arms of the galaxy also lie in this plane. Together, such bright features make observing the Milky Way’s galactic plane — where most of its disc-shaped mass lies — a difficult task.

Dark streaks of dust in the image obscure the starlight, while the glow of star-forming regions makes it difficult to distinguish the individual brightness of celestial bodies.

Using the Dark Energy Camera, astronomers could see through the dust of the galactic plane using near-infrared light and used a data processing method to reduce the obscuring effects of the star-forming regions.

The dataset was shared in a study published Wednesday in the Astrophysical Journal Supplement.

“One of the main reasons for DECaPS2’s success is that we simply pointed to a region with an extraordinarily high density of stars and were careful about identifying sources that appear nearly superimposed,” said lead study author Andrew Saydjari, a PhD student at the Harvard University and a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, in a statement.

“This allowed us to produce the largest such catalog ever with a single camera, in terms of the number of objects observed.”

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