Billions of celestial bodies captured in new research of the Milky Way

Astronomers have released a new survey of the Milky Way that includes 3.3 billion celestial objects.
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Astronomers have published a new study of the Milky Way, which includes 3.3 billion celestial bodies. (NOIRLab)

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

Our galaxy is teeming with hundreds of billions of stars, dark columns of dust and gas, and bright stellar nurseries where stars are born. Now, astronomers have documented these wonders in unprecedented detail during the Dark Energy Camera Drone Survey, which captured 21,400 individual exposures over the course of two years.

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

The telescopes here are located at an altitude of about 7,200 feet and can observe the southern sky in great detail in visible and near infrared light wavelengths. Two data from the Dark Energy Camera Drone Survey cover 6.5% of the night sky. Astronomers will be able to use the data feed to better map the 3D structure of the galaxy’s dust and stars.

“This is quite a technical feat. Imagine a group photo of over three billion people and each individual is recognizable,” said Debra Fischer, director of the National Science Foundation’s division of astronomy.

“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.”

A new image was released Wednesday showing celestial objects captured by the survey, featuring stars and dust in the Milky Way’s bright galactic disk. The spiral arms of the galaxy are also located in this plane. Together, such bright features make observing the galactic plane of the Milky Way – where most of its disk-shaped mass is located – a difficult task.

Dark dust streaks in the image block starlight, while glare from star forming regions makes it difficult to detect the individual luminosity of celestial objects.

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

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

“One of the main reasons for the success of DECaPS2 is that we pinpoint a region with an extraordinarily high stellar density and we are careful to identify sources that appear almost overlapping,” said Andrew Saydjari, lead author of the study. A PhD student at Harvard University and a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said in a statement.

“Doing this allowed us to produce the largest catalog ever from a single camera in terms of the number of observed objects.”

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