World's Most Powerful Infrared Camera Opens Its Eyes on the Heavens

*Stunning image of Orion released*

A new astronomical camera has begun operations on the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) in Hawaii. The Wide Field Camera (WFCAM), built at the UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC), Edinburgh, is the world's most powerful infrared survey camera. It will survey large regions of the sky at infrared wavelengths and is expected to discover both the nearest objects outside our Solar System and the farthest known objects in the Universe.

WFCAM has the largest field of view of any astronomical infrared camera in the world. In a single exposure it can image an area of the sky equal to that of the full moon.

"The ability to see such a large area at once, with state-of-the-art detectors, makes WFCAM the fastest infrared survey instrument in the world, bar none." said Dr Andy Adamson, Head of Operations for UKIRT.

WFCAM detects infrared light, or heat radiation, which is the key to understanding many types of astronomical objects. These include stars in our own Galaxy and beyond, interstellar clouds, the mysterious "failed stars" known as brown dwarfs, and quasars at the edge of the observable Universe.

"WFCAM will be used to do surveys of the infrared sky which will detect objects one hundred times fainter than those in the deepest existing surveys. This survey programme will take up to seven years to complete and will provide astronomers with a picture of the infrared sky to unprecedented depth." said Dr Paul Hirst, WFCAM Instrument Scientist at UKIRT.

As part of its commissioning, led by Dr Hirst and Project Scientist Dr Mark Casali, WFCAM was trained on a region of star formation in the constellation of Orion, about 1500 light years from Earth. The full WFCAM image area is 1200 times larger than that covered by UKIRT's previous infrared camera UFTI, and 3600 times larger than that covered by the Hubble Space Telescope's infrared camera NICMOS. The astronomers combined observations with different infrared filters to give a 'colour' image, showing dramatic clouds of gas and dust in the southern half of the Orion nebula. The images reveal not only the illuminated edges of clouds and filaments, but also thousands of young stars that are otherwise hidden from view at visible light wavelengths by the gas and dust.

"Getting this unique instrument designed, built and tested was a major technical challenge that has been successfully completed through the dedication and skills of the multi-disciplined team at the UK ATC. To provide UK astronomers with this huge improvement in capability is part of the core mission of the UK ATC and marks the end of 5 years of hard work for the team." said David Lunney, WFCAM Project Manager at UK ATC.

At the heart of WFCAM are four "detector arrays". These are similar in concept to the CCD chips in everyday digital cameras, but use a Mercury Cadmium Telluride crystal to make them sensitive to infrared radiation rather than visible light. Whilst a typical digital camera may take snapshots containing a few million pixels, WFCAM will map the infrared sky in vast tiles that contain over 250 million pixels each. When WFCAM is scanning the sky, it produces images at a phenomenal rate. In a single night, it will generate over 200 gigabytes of data - enough to fill over 300 CD-ROM disks.

Although the detector arrays occupy a space not much larger than a Compact Disc case, the entire WFCAM camera is huge. It is an imposing black cylinder, 5.4 metres (18 feet) long and weighing 1500 kilograms (1.7 tons), which points towards the sky from the telescope's primary mirror.

"This is a novel and unusual 'forward-cassegrain' optical design with WFCAM mounted just above the centre of the mirror. WFCAM's critical components are cooled to temperatures below -200C (-325F) so that their own heat glow doesn't swamp the tiny amounts of infrared radiation that we're trying to detect." explained Dr Hirst.

WFCAM's size, weight, and unusual position made even its installation at UKIRT an engineering challenge. It was built by the UK ATC in Edinburgh, and shipped to UKIRT in Hawaii. The team of engineers used a custom designed fork-lift truck to lift WFCAM carefully and very precisely into position over the telescope mirror.

"Achieving first light with WFCAM is the exciting result of many years of international collaboration between staff at the Joint Astronomy Centre in Hawaii and at the UK ATC. These stunning images are a testament to the hard work of everyone involved and we now look forward to several years of exciting scientific discoveries." said Professor Gary Davis, Director of the JAC.

Professor Ian Robson, Deputy Director of the UK ATC said "Building an infrared camera is relatively easy, but building the World's largest at an affordable price requires a high level of design ingenuity and professionalism. WFCAM is a tribute to the engineers of the UK ATC and we all look forward to sharing in the fantastic discoveries that WFCAM and UKIRT will bring, ranging from understanding the secrets of star formation to figuring out the formation of the first galaxies in the Universe."


Notes for Editors

The Orion images

The region shown is in the constellation of Orion, about 1500 light years from Earth. One light year is about 10 million million kilometres or 6 million million miles.

Infrared light wavelengths are typically measured in microns, also called micrometres. One micron is one millionth of a metre, one 10000th of a centimetre, or one 25000th of an inch.


Images

The following astronomical images are early results from WFCAM.

Credit: Joint Astronomy Centre. Data processing by Dr Chris Davis and Dr Watson Varricatt.

1. Full WFCAM tile of a region in the constellation of Orion. In the brightest region is a cluster of stars known as the "Trapezium", surrounded by clouds of glowing interstellar dust and gas. This is an image at a single infrared wavelength (K-band, 2.2 microns), showing a region 22 light years across.
JPEG image, 75kB

2. Central region of the full tile, showing dramatic clouds of gas and dust illuminated by stars in the southern half of the Orion nebula. This is an image at three infrared wavelengths (red represents narrow-band emission from molecular hydrogen gas at 2.12 microns, green represents K-band emission at 2.2 microns, and blue represents J-band emission at 1.25 microns). The region is 11 light years across.
JPEG image, 78kB
JPEG image, 213kB

3. Zoomed image of part of the central region showing the full detail available from WFCAM. This is an image at three infrared wavelengths (red represents narrow-band emission from molecular hydrogen gas at 2.12 microns, green represents K-band emission at 2.2 microns, and blue represents J-band emission at 1.25 microns). The region is 3.6 light years across.
JPEG image, 99kB

4. Composite image showing, from left to right, the full WFCAM tile, the central region, and the zoomed image. The small green square in the bottom left of the full tile image represents the field of view with the previous infrared camera, which is about 1200 times smaller than the full WFCAM field of view.
JPEG image, 34k
JPEG image, 343kB

5. WFCAM being installed at UKIRT
Ccredit: Tomas Chylek, Joint Astronomy Centre.
JPEG image, 100kB

6. Fisheye lens view of WFCAM at UKIRT with the telescope dome open, at sunset just before the start of a night's observations
Credit: Paul Hirst, Joint Astronomy Centre.
JPEG image, 240kB

7. UKIRT on Mauna Kea
Credit: Nik Szymanek.
JPEG image, 1.1MB

8. Star-trails above UKIRT
Credit: Nik Szymanek.
JPEG image, 1.5MB

9. Star-trails above UKIRT
Credit: Nik Szymanek.
JPEG image, 990kB


Contacts

Please note: it is best to contact these people by email over the holiday season.

Dr Paul Hirst, WFCAM Instrument Scientist at UKIRT
Joint Astronomy Centre, Hawaii
Email: p.hirst@jach.hawaii.edu
Tel: +1 808 969 6537

Dr Andy Adamson, UKIRT Head of Operations
Joint Astronomy Centre, Hawaii
Email: a.adamson@jach.hawaii.edu
Tel: +1 808 969 6511

David Lunney, WFCAM Project Manager at UK ATC
United Kingdom Astronomy Technology Centre, Edinburgh
Email: dwl@roe.ac.uk

Dr Douglas Pierce-Price, Science Outreach Specialist
Joint Astronomy Centre
Email: outreach@jach.hawaii.edu
Tel: +1 808 969 6524
Fax: +1 808 961 6516

Julia Maddock, Community Press Officer
Particle Physics & Astronomy Research Council
Tel: +44 (0)1793 442094
Fax: +44 (0)1793 442002
Email: julia.maddock@pparc.ac.uk


Web Links

Joint Astronomy Centre

Joint Astronomy Centre public outreach site

United Kingdom Astronomy Technology Centre

Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council

This press release on the JAC site.


UKIRT

The world's largest telescope dedicated solely to infrared astronomy, the 3.8-metre (12.5-foot) UK Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) is sited near the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii, at an altitude of 4194 metres (13760 feet) above sea level. It is operated by the Joint Astronomy Centre in Hilo, Hawaii, on behalf of the UK Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC).

The UK ATC

The UK Astronomy Technology Centre is located at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh (ROE). It is a scientific site belonging to the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC). The mission of the UK ATC is to support the mission and strategic aims of PPARC and to help keep the UK at the forefront of world astronomy by providing a UK focus for the design, production and promotion of state of the art astronomical technology.

PPARC

The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) is the UK's strategic science investment agency. It funds research, education and public understanding in four broad areas of science - particle physics, astronomy, cosmology and space science. PPARC is government funded and provides research grants and studentships to scientists in British universities, gives researchers access to world-class facilities and funds the UK membership of international bodies such as the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, CERN, the European Space Agency and the European Southern Observatory. It also contributes money for the UK telescopes overseas on La Palma, Hawaii, Australia and in Chile, the UK Astronomy Technology Centre at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh and the MERLIN/VLBI National Facility.

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