Unique sky survey to reveal new classes of astronomical objects

June 16th, 2009 - 1:51 pm ICT by ANI  

Washington, June 16 (ANI): An innovative sky survey has begun returning images that will be used to detect unprecedented numbers of powerful cosmic explosions called supernovae in distant galaxies, variable brightness stars in our own Milky Way, and reveal new classes of astronomical objects.

All of these discoveries will stem from the Palomar Transient Factory (PTF) survey, which combines, in a new way, the power of a wide-field telescope, a high-resolution camera, and high-performance networking and computing, with rapid follow-up by telescopes around the globe, to open windows of discovery for astronomers.

The survey has already found 40 supernovae and is gearing up to switch to a robotic mode of operation that will allow objects to be discovered nightly without the need for human intervention.

The PTF is designed to search for a wide variety of transient sources with characteristic timescales ranging from minutes to months, giving astronomers one of their deepest and most comprehensive explorations of the universe in the time domain.

“No one has looked on these timescales with this sensitivity before. It’s entirely possible that we will find new astronomical objects never before seen by humans,” said Nicholas Law of Caltech, the project scientist for PTF.

Because it looks for anything changing in the sky, the PTF survey covers a vast variety of different astronomical targets.

The wide range of the survey extends across the entire universe.

Astronomers expect to discover everything from stars exploding millions of light-years away to near-Earth asteroids that could someday impact our planet.

Much of the survey’s time is spent searching for so-called Type Ia supernovae.

These supernovae, formed from the explosion of a class of dead star known as a white dwarf, are very useful to astronomers because they can help determine the distance to galaxies located across the universe.

Those distances allow astronomers to probe the origin, structure, and even the ultimate fate of the universe.

By operating more rapidly than previous surveys, PTF will also detect objects of a completely different nature, such as pulsating stars, different types of stellar explosions, and possibly planets around other stars.

PTF’s innovative survey techniques also have raised astronomers’ expectations of finding new, unexpected, astronomical objects.

The PTF already has found many new cosmic explosions, including 32 Type Ia supernovae, eight Type II supernovae, and four cataclysmic variable stars.

Intriguingly, PTF also has found several objects with characteristics that do not exactly match any other objects that have been seen before.

PTF astronomers are eagerly watching these objects to see how they change, and to determine what they might be. (ANI)

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