The infrared sky is expanding significantly for the world community with the first world release of data (DR1) from the UKIRT Infrared Deep Sky Survey (UKIDSS).
UKIDSS DR1 has mapped a larger volume of the sky than any previous infrared survey. As the UKIDSS project progresses, it will gradually become the dominant source of information about the infrared sky, expanding its volume by a factor of 15 beyond DR1.
For the past 2 years, the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) in Hawaii has been systematically scanning the heavens for five different “colors” of faint infrared light. This allows astronomers to penetrate dark clouds where stars are currently forming, and to locate stars much less massive and cooler than the Sun. Furthermore, our own galaxy (the Milky Way) is transparent to the infrared, making it possible to see all the way to its center and beyond. And finally, the expansion of the universe stretches visible light from the most distant (and youngest) galaxies and quasars into the infrared part of the spectrum. By observing this infrared light we can trace the evolution of galaxies from their youngest members. The first world release of these data makes all this information available to researchers everywhere.
Andy Lawrence from the University of Edinburgh, the UKIDSS principal investigator, says, “We are moving into new territory. This survey probes huge volumes of space, so that we can locate rare but important objects like the very coolest and least luminous stars and the most distant galaxies. Astronomers in Europe have started getting the science out, but this world release should really unleash the scientific potential of the dataset.”
Results from this world-leading effort are released in two stages, first to the member nations of the European Southern Observatory (ESO), and 18 months later to the world astronomical community. The data now being released worldwide were obtained in the first, intensive and exciting, WFCAM observing periods on the UKIRT telescope, up to January 2006. There will be new data releases approximately every 6 months over the coming 5 years.
Astronomers from the ESO nations have been busily following up on the early UKIDSS data for the past year. The survey has proved itself a rich source of exotic objects, exactly as expected. Steve Warren, the UKIDSS survey scientist, highlights the discovery of the coolest known brown dwarf in the galaxy, ULAS J0034 for short, which, at an absolute temperature only just over twice that of the Earth, is fully 100 degrees cooler than any other known brown dwarf.
This is likely one of the closest astronomical objects outside the solar system and was discovered in the shallow UKIDSS Large Area Survey (LAS). UKIDSS is also expected to discover some of the most distant objects known. It appears to be well on the way to this goal. DR1 includes early data from the Ultra-Deep Survey (UDS), which aims to study the evolution of galaxies when the universe was a fraction of its current age. This project is extraordinarily ambitious, requiring the telescope to revisit the same square-degree area of sky on hundreds of nights. “A hundred thousand very distant galaxies are detected even in the earliest UDS data, and there is also a ‘needle in a haystack’ object, a quasar at a redshift just in excess of 6, meaning 12.7 billion light-years from Earth,” says co-discoverer Ross McLure. “The light we now see from this object is very, very old, having set off on its journey to the telescope only a billion years after the Big Bang.”
These results are among the motivations for carrying out surveys of the infrared sky. Comprising five separate surveys, some of which are highlighted here, UKIDSS has now scoured a larger volume of the universe than any previous sky survey, and only slightly less than the largest visible light surveys. When the observations are completed in 2012, UKIDSS will have probed some 70 times deeper on average than the previous largest survey.
“The UKIDSS survey program was expressly designed to capitalize on the unique technical capabilities of the UKIRT Wide-Field Camera,” says Gary Davis, director of the Joint Astronomy Centre in Hawaii, which operates the UKIRT. “It is rewarding to see the effort and dedication of a large team of scientists and engineers over many years coming to fruition. The release of DR1 presages the huge impact that UKIRT will make on world astronomy over the next several years by probing deeper into the infrared universe than ever before.”