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Zwicky Transient Facility Camera Undergoes First Light

Photonics.com
Dec 2017
POLOMAR MOUNTAIN, Calif., Dec. 12, 2017 — A robotic camera with the ability to capture hundreds of thousands of stars and galaxies in a single shot has taken its first image as part of the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) automated sky survey project based at Caltech's Palomar Observatory.

As partners in the ZTF effort, University of Maryland (UMD) astronomers contributed to the planning and design of the survey project. UMD participation in ZTF is facilitated by the Joint Space-Science Institute, a partnership between UMD and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Every night, ZTF's camera will scan a large swath of the Northern sky, discovering objects and events that vary in brightness over time, collectively known as transients. Survey targets will include explosive supernovae, hungry black holes and hurtling asteroids and comets.

"The ZTF survey will be transformative for the study of supermassive black holes feasting on stars in the centers of galaxies," said Suvi Gezari, an assistant professor of astronomy at UMD and a fellow of the Joint Space-Science Institute. “The timing of these events, known as tidal disruption events, can be used to constrain the mass and spin of black holes. Data from ZTF may also offer a rare, real-time glimpse into the formation of an accretion disk — and possibly relativistic jets — around a supermassive black hole."

The ZTF survey is named after Caltech's first astrophysicist, Fritz Zwicky, who discovered 120 supernovae in his lifetime. Recently installed at the Oschin Telescope, ZTF's new survey camera can take in seven times more sky in a single image than its predecessor. At maximum resolution, each ZTF camera image is 24,000 × 24,000 pixels.

Additionally, ZTF's upgraded electronics and telescope drive systems enable the camera to take more than twice as many exposures every night. Astronomers will not only be able to discover more transient objects, they will also be able to catch more ephemeral features that appear and fade quickly.

"There's a lot of activity happening in our night skies," said Shrinivas Kulkarni, the principal investigator for ZTF and the George Ellery Hale Professor of Astronomy and Planetary Science at Caltech. "In fact, every second, somewhere in the universe, there's a supernova that's exploding. Of course, we can't see them all but with ZTF we will see up to tens of thousands of explosive transients every year over the three-year lifetime of the project."

Images from ZTF will be adjusted, cleaned and calibrated at IPAC, Caltech's astronomy and data center. Software will search the flood of ZTF data for light sources--in particular those that change or move. These data will be made public to the entire astronomy community for both research and education.

"Data from ZTF presents a really great opportunity for students here at UMD, because large survey programs like ZTF will play a big role in the future of astronomy," said Melissa Hayes-Gehrke, a principal lecturer and undergraduate director of astronomy at UMD. Hayes-Gehrke has led efforts to develop educational materials that make use of data from PTF and ZTF. "It is fantastic to get students in on the ground floor. Astronomers will be mining this data for years to come, so this is an important step to help prepare students for a career in research."

BusinessZwicky Transient FacilityCaltechPalomar ObservatoryUniversity of MarylandNASAopticsimagingAmericas

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