Astronomers add powerful camera to Arizona telescope

A Yale partnership has begun testing a new camera that will be among the most advanced on Earth dedicated to the study of astronomy.

Called the One Degree Imager (ODI) and located at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, the 2,800-pound, high-resolution camera will be powerful enough to resolve small objects over vast distances — like seeing a baseball 30 miles away.

The camera also will allow astronomers to take images of an unusually broad region of the sky — one degree, an area equivalent to about five times that of the full moon — opening new research possibilities.

"The first images from ODI are impressive," said Marla Geha, associate professor of astronomy at Yale and director of Yale Research Observatories. "We’re eager to use this instrument for a wide array of scientific questions, from characterizing extrasolar planets to searching for new galaxy companions around the Milky Way.”

Most telescope-camera combinations capture a very small part of the sky, a limitation for astronomers studying large, but faint, astronomical objects.

ODI is paired with a 3.5-meter telescope owned and operated by the WIYN consortium, which includes the University of Wisconsin, Indiana University, Yale, and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory. The telescope is the second-largest of more than two dozen at the Kitt Peak site, southwest of Tuscon.

Now in performance testing, the camera is expected to be ready for research use in March 2013 and fully operational sometime around 2014. The first tests with the camera connected to the telescope took place in August.

“I see distant galaxies everywhere, but they don’t look like faint smudges,” said Todd Boroson, the NOAO astronomer who is the ODI project’s principal investigator, describing the camera’s early results. “It’s almost like looking at Hubble Space Telescope images.”

Anticipated projects include surveys of galaxies too distant for their shapes and structure to be discerned, studies of the motions of galaxies, and direct distance measurements of stars much fainter than can now be measured with existing instruments.

“Once fully deployed, the combination of the large field of view, excellent image quality, superior blue sensitivity, and ability to use special filters will ensure that scientists will be able to use ODI and WIYN to address scientifically compelling questions that would be very difficult to address with any other facility in the northern hemisphere,” WIYN director Patricia Knezek said.

The camera takes its name from its intended capability — covering one square degree of the sky. It is funded by the WIYN partners and the National Science Foundation’s Telescope System Instrumentation Program.

Data from the camera will be archived at Indiana University’s Pervasive Technology Institute, in Bloomington, Indiana. Ultimately, all ODI data will be publically available.

Follow a blog about the new camera.