With launch of new night sky survey, UW researchers ready for era of ‘big data’ astronomy

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November 14, 2017

Caltech Optical Observatories

The first astronomers had a limited toolkit: their eyes. They could only observe those stars, planets and celestial events bright enough to pick up unassisted. But today’s astronomers use increasingly sensitive and sophisticated instruments to view and track a bevy of cosmic wonders, including objects and events that were too dim or distant for their sky-gazing forebears.
On Nov. 14, scientists with the California Institute of Technology, the University of Washington and eight additional partner institutions, announced that the Zwicky Transient Facility, the latest sensitive tool for astrophysical observations in the Northern Hemisphere, has seen “first light” and took its first detailed image of the night sky.
When fully operational in 2018, the ZTF will scan almost the entire northern sky every night. Based at the Palomar Observatory in southern California and operated by Caltech, the ZTF’s goal is to use these nightly images to identify “transient” objects that vary between observations — identifying events ranging from supernovae millions of light years away to near-Earth asteroids.

The ZTF took this “first light” image on Nov. 1, 2017, after being installed at the 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope at Palomar Observatory. The Horsehead nebula is near center and the Orion nebula is at lower right. The full-resolution version is more than 24,000 pixels by 24,000 pixels. Each ZTF image covers a sky area equal to 247 full moons.Caltech Optical Observatories

In 2016, the UW Department of Astronomy formally joined the ZTF team and will help develop new methods to identify the most “interesting” of the millions of changes in the sky — including new objects — that the ZTF will detect each night and alert scientists. That way, these high-priority transient objects can be followed up in detail by larger telescopes, including the UW’s share of the Apache Point Observatory 3.5-meter telescope.
“UW is a world leader in survey astronomy, and …

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