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3 August 2011
ESO’s infrared survey telescope digs deep into star-forming regions in our Milky Way
VISTA Finds Star Clusters Galore
Using data from the VISTA infrared survey telescope at ESO’s Paranal Observatory, an international team of astronomers has discovered 96 new open star clusters hidden by the dust in the Milky Way. These tiny and faint objects were invisible to previous surveys, but they could not escape the sensitive infrared detectors of the world’s largest survey telescope, which can peer through the dust. This is the first time so many faint and small clusters have been found at once.
This result comes just one year after the start of the VISTA Variables in the Via Lactea programme (VVV) , one of the six public surveys on the new telescope. The results will appear in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.
“This discovery highlights the potential of VISTA and the VVV survey for finding star clusters, especially those hiding in dusty star-forming regions in the Milky Way’s disc. VVV goes much deeper than other surveys,” says Jura Borissova, lead author of the study.
The majority of stars with more than half of the mass of our Sun form in groups, called open clusters. These clusters are the building blocks of galaxies and vital for the formation and evolution of galaxies such as our own. However, stellar clusters form in very dusty regions that diffuse and absorb most of the visible light that the young stars emit, making them invisible to most sky surveys, but not to the 4.1-m infrared VISTA telescope.
“In order to trace the youngest star cluster formation we concentrated our search towards known star-forming areas. In regions that looked empty in previous visible-light surveys, the sensitive VISTA infrared detectors uncovered many new objects,” adds Dante Minniti, lead scientist of the VVV survey.
By using carefully tuned computer software, the team was able to remove the foreground stars appearing in front of each cluster in order to count the genuine cluster members. Afterwards, they made visual inspections of the images to measure the cluster sizes, and for the more populous clusters they made other measurements such as distance, age, and the amount of reddening of their starlight caused by interstellar dust between them and us.
“We found that most of the clusters are very small and only have about 10–20 stars. Compared to typical open clusters, these are very faint and compact objects — the dust in front of these clusters makes them appear 10 000 to 100 million times fainter in visible light. It’s no wonder they were hidden,” explains Radostin Kurtev, another member of the team.
Since antiquity only 2500 open clusters have been found in the Milky Way, but astronomers estimate there might be as many as 30 000 still hiding behind the dust and gas. While bright and large open clusters are easily spotted, this is the first time that so many faint and small clusters have been found at once.
Furthermore, these new 96 open clusters could be only the tip of the iceberg. “We’ve just started to use more sophisticated automatic software to search for less concentrated and older clusters. I am confident that many more are coming soon,” adds Borissova.
 Since 2010, the VISTA Variables in the Via Lactea programme (VVV) has been scanning the central parts of the Milky Way and the southern plane of the galactic disc in infrared light. This program was granted a total of 1929 hours of observing time over a five year period. Via Lactea is the Latin name for the Milky Way.
This research is presented in a paper entitled “New Galactic Star Clusters in the VVV Survey”, to appear in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.
The team is composed of J. Borissova (Universidad de Valparaíso, Chile), C. Bonatto (Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil), R. Kurtev (Universidad de Valparaíso), J. R. A. Clarke (Universidad de Valparaíso), F. Peñaloza (Universidad de Valparaíso), S. E. Sale (Universidad de Valparaíso; Pontificia Universidad Católica, Chile), D. Minniti (Pontificia Universidad Católica, Chile), J. Alonso-García (Pontificia Universidad Católica), E. Artigau (Département de Physique and Observatoire du Mont Mégantic, Université de Montréal, Canada), R. Barbá (Universidad de La Serena, Chile), E. Bica (Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul), G. L. Baume (Instituto de Astrofísica de La Plata, Argentina), M. Catelan (Pontificia Universidad Católica), A. N. Chenè (Universidad de Valparaíso; Universidad de Concepción, Chile), B. Dias (Universidade de Sao Paulo, Brazil), S. L. Folkes (Universidad de Valparaíso), D. Froebrich (The University of Kent, UK), D. Geisler (Universidad de Concepción), R. de Grijs (Peking University, China; Kyung Hee University, Korea), M. M. Hanson (University of Cincinnati), M. Hempel (Pontificia Universidad Católica), V. D. Ivanov (European Southern Observatory), M. S. N. Kumar (Universidade do Porto; Portugal), P. Lucas (University of Hertfordshire, UK), F. Mauro (Universidad de Concepción), C. Moni Bidin (Universidad de Concepción), M. Rejkuba (European Southern Observatory), R. K. Saito (Pontificia Universidad Católica), M. Tamura National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, Japan), and I. Toledo (Pontificia Universidad Católica).
ESO, the European Southern Observatory, is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive astronomical observatory. It is supported by 15 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world’s most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory and two survey telescopes. VISTA works in the infrared and is the world’s largest survey telescope and the VLT Survey Telescope is the largest telescope designed to exclusively survey the skies in visible light. ESO is the European partner of a revolutionary astronomical telescope ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. ESO is currently planning a 40-metre-class European Extremely Large optical/near-infrared Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.
Research paper: http://www.eso.org/public/archives/releases/sciencepapers/eso1128/eso1128.pdf
Photos of VISTA: http://www.eso.org/public/images/archive/search/?adv=&title=VISTA
Credit: J. Borissova, Universidad de Valparaiso ESO / Richard Hook, la Silla / Paranal / E-ELT / Survey Telescopes.
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