Today, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) announced that it has captured the most detailed deep field images of the universe ever achieved.
Twenty new galaxies were caught during the exposure, and previously observed galaxies were imaged with such unprecedented resolution that astronomers were able to build a comprehensive 3D map of their relative locations to each other. In fact, the results were so detailed that ESO released them in movie format.
Short clip of MUSE observations. Credit: ESO/MUSE Consortium/R. Bacon
"After just a few hours of observations at the telescope, we had a quick look at the data and found many galaxies—it was very encouraging," astronomer Roland Bacon, the principal investigator on the project, said in an ESO statement released today.
"When we got back to Europe we started exploring the data in more detail," he continued. "It was like fishing in deep water and each new catch generated a lot of excitement and discussion of the species we were finding,"
The images were taken with one of ESO's newest and most anticipated instruments: the Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE). MUSE is attached to the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile, the most productive astronomical facility on Earth, and received its its first light on January 31, 2014.
In the year since it opened its eyes to the skies, MUSE has proved to be an exciting, next-generation light collector. In fact, with these new images, MUSE has one-upped the famous deep field shots of the Hubble Space Telescope (which is, incidentally, the most productive astronomical facility off Earth).
The images that ESO released today reveal much more than Hubble corollaries, and they also took way less time to compile, thanks to MUSE's impressive set of multitasking skills.
Five minute documentary on MUSE technology. Credit: ESO
You see, before MUSE, astronomers used telescopes like Hubble to image a broad section of the sky for a long exposure. That would give them a general outline of the galaxies and other celestial objects in the field.
But to determine the finer properties of each light source—details like distance, size, molecular composition, or velocity relative to the Earth—researchers would have to painstakingly image each individual object with other specialized telescopes, and analyze them for spectral data. This process could take months.
That's what's so inherently different about ESO's approach with MUSE. Over the course of a 27-hour exposure, this instrument can capture a deep field shot of the sky while simultaneously recording minute observations of an object's spectral properties.
In fact, for the MUSE, each pixel of an image actually represents of 90,000 spectra of data. The instrument isn't just capturing a static one-tone snapshot; it's capturing a telescope 3D movie of the universe in its infancy, some 10 billion years ago, all with a relatively brief exposure time.
"Now that we have demonstrated MUSE's unique capabilities for exploring the deep Universe, we are going to look at other deep fields, such as the Hubble Ultra Deep field," Bacon said.
The Hubble is still one of the most important scientific observatories in history, and it has undoubtedly revolutionized the way humans view the universe with its breathtaking deep field shots. But the old girl is due to turn 25 this year, so it's no surprise that young up-and-comers like MUSE are now peering into the early universe with more precision than ever.