Tuesday, 30 September 2014

A new catalogue of over 200 million stars in the Milky Way galaxy

Recently one of the surveys that I'm a member of made a huge data release including over 200 million stars from our own galaxy, the Milky Way. We've made the data available to the entire world, not just the astronomical community, but everyone in the world! Astronomers love to share data!

The Isaac Newton Telescope on La Palma (Credit: ING)

The survey in question is the INT Photometric H-Alpha Survey (IPHAS), which has, over the last 11 years been using the Isaac Newton Telescope on the island of La Palma to survey our own galaxy to an unprecedented level of detail.

IPHAS is a photometric survey, meaning the goal of the survey is to measure photometry for all the sources it observes (astronomers refer to most objects as 'sources' until they're sure exactly what they are: stars, planets or galaxies). Photometry is the easiest measurement astronomers can make, since all you have to do is measure how bright an object is using a certain filter. IPHAS uses two 'broad' filters and one 'narrow' Hα filter (more on the awesomeness of this filter and what you can do with it in a future post).

The Milky Way (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Our own galaxy is visible to us as a glowing band of light stretching across the sky, known as the Milky Way. It appears this way to us because we (the Earth, the Sun and the entire solar system) are within the galaxy, and so we see the galaxy all around us, but concentrated in a band of light that makes up the disk of our galaxy. Astronomers refer to this as the Galactic Plane.

Surveying our galaxy is not easy because the stars can often be very crowded together (hence why they often appear blurred as a bright band of light instead of individual stars), so to do the job properly requires a high-resolution telescope and instrument, but also one that could invest a lot of time and effort into a single project such as this.

In 2003 the Isaac Newton Telescope was just such a telescope and so the IPHAS collaboration was born, led by Janet Drew (currently at the University of Hertfordshire where I am also based). I joined the collaboration in 2004 when I started my PhD at University College London and have been involved in the survey ever since, participating in the telescope observations, analysing data, and writing papers. Its been great to be involved in such a large and exciting project such as this.

After 11 years of taking data, sorting and organising the data, and doing some exciting science as well, the catalog is finally finished. It contains information on 219 million detected objects, the vast majority of which are stars in our own galaxy. It's an example of what astronomers (and data scientists) refer to as 'big data': huge catalogs of data, observations and measurements that can be sorted, filtered and analysed en masse.

One example of this is the image shown below, which was put together by IPHAS astronomer Hywel Farnhill. This map shows part of the Galactic Plane that IPHAS has been surveying, mostly covering the constellation of Cygnus, but stretching to Sagitta on the right.

IPHAS stellar density map (Credit: Hywel Farnhill)

This map is a stellar density map, showing the density of stars across the Galactic Plane, i.e. the number of stars detected by the IPHAS survey in each area of the plane, and its really detailed! Click here to see a high-resolution version of the image, zoom into it, and have a look at the exquisite level of detail that can be seen. The brightest parts are where we detect the most stars and the darkest parts are where we detect the least stars.

Most of this structure is actually due to the obscuring effects of interstellar dust, and not actually the distribution of stars in our galaxy (though this does contribute). Interstellar dust, which is mostly very small silicate rocks (similar to those found on Earth), absorbs starlight, particularly at visible wavelengths, and leads to the fine structure that you can see in this image. Tracing the distribution of this dust is really important to astronomers because of the huge influence it can have when it absorbs the light from the stars and galaxies we are trying to study.

You can read more about the survey on the IPHAS website, learn about the data release itself in this published paper by IPHAS astronomer and catalog maestro Geert Barentsen, or read the press release from the Royal Astronomical Society. If you'd like to access the data (and please do) you can get the entire set of data, for free, from the Vizier web archive.

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