Saturday, 11 October 2008

Twinkle, twinkle, little star

How I wonder how many of you little buggers are out there? Poetry was never my strong suit.

After recovering from the shock of opening my 401K statement yesterday I thought it might be better for my health to think about astronomy again and try to forget about the dire financial news on this planet. So...

Although there have been several surveys of the astronomical sky in the past we're entering a new era in astronomy fuelled by the incredible increases in the processing power of computers. At least three telescopes on Mauna Kea are undertaking sky surveys or are about to and one of these is the UKIRT Infrared Deep Sky Survey (UKIDSS), an ambitious attempt to map the northern hemisphere sky in the near-infrared (light with wavelengths of roughly 0.8 to 2.3 microns) .

The survey itself consists of five sub-surveys, the Large Area Survey (LAS), the Galactic Plane Survey (GPS), the Galactic Clusters Survey (GCS), the Deep Extragalactic Survey (DXS) and the Ultradeep Survey (UDS). Although all these surveys use the same telescope and instrument (UKIRT and WFCAM respectively), their aims are very different. The main difference between them though, in lay person's terms, are the parts of the sky they cover and how deep the images go and therefore the science we learn. For instance, the LAS is a project to map a large part of the northern hemisphere but not as deep, for instance, as the UDS which images a part of the sky only slightly larger than the apparent size of the full moon, but spends almost a year doing so. These images will be added together to create infrared images of the early universe.

As a very young child my interest in the physical sciences was given to me by my father (a meteorologist) although I never actually thought astronomy would be my career - that came a lot later. Every week I'd sit with him and watch Star Trek and then I'd look at the astronomy picture books I had been given by my parents and neighbours. The images that always held my attention were those of stars in nebulae with all those amazing colours. I used to imagine that there were planets around those stars with populations that would visit each other in their space ships.

What I couldn't imagine then was how far we would advance and produce images that now blow my mind. I still love images of nebulae, they always make me pause for thought, and my favourite survey for this is the UKIDSS GPS. They've released some of their images to the public (e.g., the picture above is the GPS image of our Galactic Centre) and you can get a glimpse of our Galaxy in the near-infrared for yourself at the GPS WFCAM Science Archive page.

And before you ask, no, I'm not a fan of Star Trek!

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