Super-wide-angle sky survey celebrates ‘first light’

ZTF first light
The Zwicky Transient Facility captured this “first light” image on Nov. 1. The Orion Nebula is at lower right. Computers searching these images for quick-changing events are trained to recognize and ignore non-astronomical artifacts such as the vertical lines seen here. (Caltech Optical Observatories)

A sky survey that draws upon the data-crunching skills of researchers at the University of Washington has reached a milestone known as “first light” — and the view is awesome.

The Zwicky Transient Facility takes super-wide-angle pictures of the night sky, using a robotic camera hooked up to the 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory in the mountains near San Diego.

“First light” occurs when astronomers capture their first image with a new observing instrument. ZTF’s first-light image, taken on Nov. 1, shows a wide swath of the sky that includes the Orion Nebula.

Each ZTF exposure covers a sky area equal to 247 full moons, or 47 square degrees, resulting in an image that’s bigger than 24,000 by 24,000 pixels at full resolution. The camera can cover the entire northern sky in the course of three nights, and scan the visible plane of the Milky Way twice each night.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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