Telescope’s birthday gift is dust the job

In what could almost be a 25th birthday present for the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, an advanced cryogenic camera has unveiled new dusty bands of star formation in a distant galaxy.

Red colours show M66 as it appears at submillimetre wavelengths
Red colours show M66 as it appears at submillimetre wavelengths, projected against a visible view of the galaxy. Credit: VLT/ESO, JAC, G. Bendo

The SCUBA-2 camera (Submillimetre Common User Bolometer Array) fitted to the JCMT honed its keen sight onto Messier 66, a spiral galaxy lying 36 million light years away in the constellation Leo.

Galaxies often possess vast dust lanes, obscuring anything within them like a ‘galactic smog’. However, this same dust absorbs emissions from whatever is inside and re-radiates it at wavelengths that SCUBA-2 is designed to detect, using an extremely sensitive superconducting chip.

One of the team’s leaders, Dr Stephen Serjeant of the Open University’s Centre for Earth, Planetary, Space and Astronomical Research, said: “This exquisite image from M66 is exactly the promising start we were hoping for. It is a wonderfully exciting taste of things to come.” 

As Associate Director of the JCMT Dr Antonio Chrysostomou explains, SCUBA-2 has wide ambitions. “There are six different surveys running with SCUBA-2, and altogether, these are called the JCMT Legacy Survey,” he said.

“These are ambitious observing surveys with the common theme of ‘origins’, from planet formation (i.e. debris disks), star formation, and galaxy formation and evolution.”

These include a survey of galaxies when the Universe was just a billion years old, galaxies in the local neighbourhood, two surveys of the Galactic Plane, a survey of known debris disks, and one survey of star formation in the Gould Belt (a ring of stars tilted from the Galactic Plane).

The 15-metre JCMT in Hawaii, which first viewed the sky in 1987, is the largest sub-millimetre telescope in the world. It is operated by the Joint Astronomy Centre, which is an establishment of the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and operated in partnership with Canada and The Netherlands. The SCUBA-2 camera itself is led by STFC’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh.

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