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ZTF team shares sky scanner’s greatest hits

Andromeda galaxy
This composite image of the Andromeda galaxy was made by combining images from the Zwicky Transient Facility in three bands of visible light. The image covers 2.9 square degrees, which is one-sixteenth of ZTF’s full field of view. (ZTF Photo / D. Goldstein / R. Hurt / Caltech)

A state-of-the-art astronomical camera system in California known as the Zwicky Transient Facility is rolling out an early batch of greatest hits with an assist from the University of Washington.

The wide-angle camera makes use of the 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope at Southern California’s Palomar Observatory, with Caltech playing the principal role in the $24 million project. But UW is one of the partners in the ZTF consortium, and UW’s DIRAC Institute plays a key role in the automated alert system that lets astronomers know when the instrument has picked up a hot one.

Technical details and early results from the ZTF are laid out in a flurry of six papers accepted by the Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. The discoveries include more than 1,100 supernovae and 50 near-Earth asteroids. One of the finds is a strange space rock known as 2019 AQ3. It makes an orbit around the sun every 165 days, which gives it the shortest “year” of any known asteroid.

“It’s a cornucopia of results,” Caltech astronomer Shri Kulkarni, the ZTF project’s principal investigator, said in a news release. “We are up and running and delivering data to the astronomical community. Astronomers are energized.”

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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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