12May2012

The red colors in this image show the galaxy M66 as it appears at the sub-mm wavelength of 850 microns, while the white background shows the galaxy as it appears in visible light. Regions of cold dust that appear as dark streaks in the white image glow brightly in the red image. Credit: VLT/ESO, JAC, G. Bendo

You won’t find this this telescope or camera at a local star party. One of astronomy’s most powerful cameras, SCUBA-2 is now on-line and giving us one of the most intricate images ever seen of our neighboring galaxies. What it has revealed is an incredible spread of evolving stars… ones normally hidden by their dusty womb. Thanks to the James Clerk Maxell Telescope, SCUBA-2 is producing images at sub-millimetre wavelengths and sending back glowing images of dark dustlanes where new stars were previously undetected. “This exquisite image from the galaxy M66 in the constellation Leo is exactly the promising start we were hoping for,” said Dr. Stephen Serjeant, the team’s co-leader from The Open University. “This is a wonderfully exciting taste of things to come.”

Have you ever marveled at the spiral arms of our own Milky Way? Even without optical aid we can see dark areas of dust which obscure starlight. If we were able to “see” through the dust, we’d discover vast stellar nurseries – the home of the next generation of stars. But the Milky Way isn’t the only galaxy with dark dust lanes… they are part of all spiral galaxies
and light up the night at sub-millimetre (sub-mm) wavelengths.

Here is where the revolutionary design of the SCUBA-2 camera comes into play. Mounted on the world’s largest sub-mm telescope, the 15-metre James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) in Hawaii, it can capture light waves a thousand times longer than we humans can see.

“This image promises to be the first of many stunning results from the JCMT Nearby Galaxy Legacy Survey (NGLS).” says Dr. Holly Thomas of the Joint Astronomy Centre. “The main aim of the survey is to understand how the broader environment of a galaxy affects its gas and dust content.

For example, galaxies in dense clusters can lose their gas and dust through interactions with other galaxies in the cluster or simply by the head wind they feel while moving through the hot gas trapped inside the cluster.” The Nearby Galaxy Legacy survey is an international collaboration led by astronomers from Canada, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom which is using SCUBA-2 to observe 150 galaxies in the local Universe.

For nearly half a decade, NGLS researchers have been busy with an alternate instrument on the JCMT gathering data on molecular hydrogen emissions. “It is very exciting to now see the first results from the SCUBA-2 side of our program starting to come in,” says Professor Christine Wilson, the Principal Investigator from McMaster University in Canada. “We have a unique sample of galaxies that we are studying and having SCUBA-2 data will let us measure their gas and dust content. Gas and dust usually go hand-in-hand in galaxies, but from time to time, you find a surprise.”

And we’re happy to share!

Original Story Source: Joint Astronomy Centre Press Release.

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