A spectacular map of the Milky Way has been produced that is allowing astronomers to study the cold universe, which is the gas and dust that are only a few tens of degrees above absolute zero.

Dubbed the APEX Telescope Large Area Survey after the telescope used in Chile, the survey includes most of the regions of star formation in the Milky Way. The Chilean telescope has mapped the full area of the Galactic Plane visible from the southern hemisphere for the first time at submillimetre wavelengths — between infrared light and radio waves — and in finer detail than recent space-based surveys.

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The APEX data shows up in red and the background blue image was imaged at shorter infrared wavelengths by the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope as part of the GLIMPSE survey.

ATLASGAL has allowed us to have a new and transformational look at the dense interstellar medium of our own Milky Way,” European Southern Observatory’s Leonardo Testi, who is a member of the ATLASGAL team and the European Project Scientist for the ALMA project, said in a statement. “The new release of the full survey opens up the possibility to mine this marvelous dataset for new discoveries. Many teams of scientists are already using the ATLASGAL data to plan for detailed ALMA follow-up.” 

APEX, the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment telescope, is located at 16,732 feet altitude on the Chajnantor Plateau in Chile’s Atacama region.

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At the heart of APEX are its sensitive instruments. One of these, LABOCA (the Large Bolometer Camera), the largest such detector in the southern hemisphere, was used for the ATLASGAL survey. LABOCA, built at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (MPIfR ) in Bonn, Germany, measures incoming radiation by registering the tiny rise in temperature it causes and can detect emission from the cold dark dust bands obscuring the stellar light.

This allows astronomers to detect emissions spread over a larger area of sky and to estimate the fraction of dense gas in the inner galaxy.

“If we combine the high spatial resolution ATLASGAL data with observations from ESA’s Planck satellite, the resulting data reach space quality with a 20 times higher resolution,” MPIfR’s Axel Weiss, who was responsible for the merging of the data, said in a statement.