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New wide image of universe called unprecedented

March 22, 2012
Courtesy of the Science & Technology 
Facilities Council of the U.K.
and World Science staff

As­tro­no­mers have re­leased a pan­o­ram­ic im­age of the uni­verse that they call un­prec­e­dent­ed in scope.

The im­age is the most de­tailed pic­ture tak­en of a re­gion large enough to be rep­re­sent­a­tive of the dis­tant uni­verse, ac­cord­ing to the re­search­ers be­hind the work. Ga­lax­ies seen at vast dis­tances are al­so seen as they were long ago, since their light takes time to trav­el.

Click for full-page version

On this col­or com­pos­ite of the Ul­tra­V­ISTA im­age (click for full-screen view), the large white ob­jects with haloes are fore­ground stars in our own Milky Way Gal­axy. A host of oth­er ga­lax­ies can be seen, from rel­a­tively near­by ga­lax­ies which ap­pear large enough to dis­cern their struc­tures, to the most dis­tant ga­lax­ies which ap­pear as red dots in this im­age. (Cred­it: Ul­tra­V­ISTA/Terapix/CNRS/CASU )


“Un­til re­cently our view back to the first ep­och of gal­axy forma­t­ion has been lim­it­ed to ti­ny, ‘pencil-beam’ im­ages made with the Hub­ble Space Tele­scope,” said James Dun­lop of the Uni­vers­ity of Ed­in­burgh in Scot­land, who led the sci­en­tif­ic team. “Now VIS­TA, with its pan­o­ram­ic im­ag­ing ca­pa­bil­ity, is pro­vid­ing us with the first view of truly rep­re­sent­a­tive re­gions of the young Uni­verse.”

VIS­TA is the Vis­i­ble and In­fra­red Sur­vey Tel­e­scope for As­tron­o­my, a new in­stru­ment lo­cat­ed at the Pa­ra­nal Ob­serv­a­to­ry in Chil­e. The im­age was tak­en us­ing near-infrared light, a type of light some­what less en­er­get­ic than what the hu­man eye can de­tect, al­though it can be con­vert­ed to vis­i­ble form in im­ages.

The pic­ture shows more than 200,000 ga­lax­ies, in­clud­ing the most dis­tant and thus young­est seen to date, as­tro­no­mers said. The ob­jects formed less than one bil­lion years af­ter the Big Bang, a sort of ex­plo­sion sci­en­tists con­sid­er to be the birth of our now al­most 14 bil­lion-year-old cos­mos.

The im­age comes from the first year of da­ta tak­en as part of a five-year sur­vey dubbed Ultra­VIS­TA. It was made by com­bin­ing more than 6,000 im­ages, part of a huge col­lec­tion from VIS­TA be­ing made avail­a­ble to as­tro­no­mers world­wide by the Eu­ro­pe­an South­ern Ob­serv­a­to­ry, which op­er­ates the Pa­ra­nal Ob­serv­a­to­ry. 

To cre­ate the pan­o­rama, VIS­TA was trained on the same patch of sky re­peat­edly to slowly ac­cu­mu­late the very dim light from the most dis­tant ga­lax­ies. The sur­vey ar­ea co­in­cides with the loca­t­ion of the larg­est vis­i­ble-light im­age tak­en with the Hub­ble Space Tel­e­scope, called the COS­MOS sur­vey. This co­vers an ap­par­ently al­most emp­ty patch of sky, but the com­bina­t­ion of the Hub­ble im­ag­ing and the new VIS­TA da­ta has re­vealed it as a treas­ure trove of da­ta, as­tro­no­mers say. The fi­nal Ultra­VIS­TA im­age is ex­pected to re­veal ob­jects five to ten times faint­er still, en­a­bling the study of gal­axy ev­o­lu­tion over the his­to­ry of the uni­verse.


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Astronomers have released a panoramic image of the universe that they call unprecedented in scope. The image is the most detailed picture taken of a region large enough to be representative of the distant universe, according to the researchers behind the work. Galaxies seen at vast distances are also seen as they were long ago, since their light takes time to travel. “Until recently our view back to the first epoch of galaxy formation has been limited to tiny, ‘pencil-beam’ images made with the Hubble Space Telescope,” said James Dunlop of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, who led the scientific team. “Now VISTA, with its panoramic imaging capability, is providing us with the first view of truly representative regions of the young Universe.” VISTA is the Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy, a new instrument located at the Paranal Observatory in Chile. The image was taken using near-infrared light, a type of light somewhat less energetic than what the human eye can detect, although it can be converted to visible form in images. The picture shows more than 200,000 galaxies, including the most distant seen to date in the early Universe, astronomers said. The objects formed less than one billion years after the Big Bang, a sort of explosion scientists consider to be the birth of our now almost 14 billion-year-old cosmos. The image comes from the first year of data taken as part of a five-year survey dubbed UltraVISTA. It was made by combining more than 6,000 images, part of a huge collection from VISTA being made available to astronomers worldwide by the European Southern Observatory, which operates the Paranal Observatory. To create the panorama, VISTA was trained on the same patch of sky repeatedly to slowly accumulate the very dim light from the most distant galaxies. The survey area coincides with the location of the largest visible-light image taken with the Hubble Space Telescope, called the COSMOS survey. This covers an apparently almost empty patch of sky, but the combination of the Hubble imaging and the new VISTA data has revealed it as a treasure trove of data, astronomers say. The final UltraVISTA image is expected to reveal objects five to ten times fainter still, enabling the study of galaxy evolution over the history of the universe.