Astronomical Survey Aims to Gain New Understanding of the Cosmos

The fifth generation of Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) compiled its very first observations of the cosmos at 1:47 a.m. MDT on October 24th, 2020.

The Sloan Digital Sky Survey’s fifth-generation made its first observations earlier this month. This image shows a sampling of data from those first SDSS-V data. The central sky image is a single field of SDSS-V observations. The purple circle indicates the telescope’s field-of-view on the sky, with the full Moon shown as a size comparison. SDSS-V simultaneously observes 500 targets at a time within a circle of this size. The left panel shows the optical-light spectrum of a quasar—a supermassive black hole at the center of a distant galaxy, which is surrounded by a disk of hot, glowing gas. The purple blob is an SDSS image of the light from this disk, which in this dataset spans about 1 arcsecond on the sky, or the width of a human hair as seen from about 21 m (63 ft) away. The right panel shows the image and spectrum of a white dwarf—the left-behind core of a low-mass star (like the Sun) after the end of its life. Image Credit: Hector Ibarra Medel, Jon Trump, Yue Shen, Gail Zasowski, and the SDSS-V Collaboration. Central background image: unWISE/NASA/JPL-Caltech/D. Lang (Perimeter Institute).

This pioneering all-sky survey will strengthen the understanding of the creation and evolution of galaxies—including the Milky Way—and the supermassive black holes that reside at their centers.

The recently launched SDSS-V will pursue the path-breaking trend set by the survey’s earlier generations, with an emphasis on the constantly changing night sky and the physical processes that trigger these changes, from flickers and flares of supermassive black holes to the to-and-fro shifts of stars being orbited by faraway worlds.

The spectroscopic assistance will be provided by SDSS-V to accomplish the complete science potential of satellites like ESA’s Gaia, NASA’s TESS, and the most recent all-sky X-ray mission, eROSITA.

In a year when humanity has been challenged across the globe, I am so proud of the worldwide SDSS team for demonstrating—every day—the very best of human creativity, ingenuity, improvisation, and resilience. It has been a challenging period for the team, but I’m happy to say that the pandemic may have slowed us, but it has not stopped us.

Juna Kollmeier, Director, SDSS-V

As a global consortium, SDSS has continually depended a lot on phone and digital communication. However, adjusting to solely virtual communication strategies was a challenge, as was monitoring international supply chains and laboratory availability at different university partners while they moved in and out of lockdown during the final build-up to the survey’s commencement.

The project’s expert observing staff was especially motivating as they functioned in even-greater-than-usual seclusion to shut down, and then reopen, operations at the mountain-top observatories of the survey.

Financially supported mainly by member institutions, together with grants from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the U.S. National Science Foundation, and the Heising-Simons Foundation, SDSS-V will concentrate on three key areas of exploration, each investigating different features of the cosmos using various spectroscopic instruments.

These three project pillars were collectively called “Mappers” and will observe over six million objects in the sky, as well as track variations in over a million of those objects through time.

The Local Volume Mapper of the survey will improve the understanding regarding the formation and evolution of galaxies by examining the interactions between the stars that constitute galaxies and the interstellar dust and gas distributed between them.

The Milky Way Mapper will expose the physics of stars in the Milky Way, the assorted composition of its star and planetary units, and the chemical enrichment of Earth’s galaxy since the early universe.

The Black Hole Mapper will quantify masses and growth through cosmic time of the supermassive black holes that lurk at the centers of galaxies, together with the smaller black holes that remain when stars die.

We are thrilled to start taking the first data for two of our three Mappers. These early observations are already important for a wide range of science goals. Even these first targets cover goals from mapping the inner regions of supermassive black holes and searching for exotic multiple-black hole systems, to studying nearby stars and their dead cores, to tracing the chemistry of potential planet-hosting stars across the Milky Way.

Gail Zasowski, SDSS-V Spokesperson, University of Utah

According to Evan Michelson, program director at the Sloan Foundation, “SDSS-V will continue to transform astronomy by building on a 20-year legacy of path-breaking science, shedding light on the most fundamental questions about the origins and nature of the universe.”

It demonstrates all the hallmark characteristics that have made SDSS so successful in the past: open sharing of data, inclusion of diverse scientists, and collaboration across numerous institutions. We are so pleased to support Juna Kollmeier and the entire SDSS team, and we are excited for this next phase of discovery.

Evan Michelson, Program Director, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation

SDSS-V will function out of both Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico, where the survey’s original 2.5-m telescope is stationed, and Carnegie’s Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, where the 2.5-m du Pont telescope is used for the survey.

SDSS V is one of the most important astronomical projects of the decade. It will set new standards not only in astrophysics but also in robotics and big data,” noted the observatory’s Director Leopoldo Infante. “Consequently, to ensure its success, the Las Campanas Observatory is prepared to carry out the project with all the human and technical resources available on the mountain.”

SDSS-V’s first observations were collected in New Mexico with current SDSS instruments, as an essential change of plans because of the pandemic.

With workshops and laboratories worldwide directing a safe reopening, SDSS-V’s own collection of new groundbreaking hardware is on the horizon—especially, automated robot systems to aim the fiber optic cables used to gather the light from the night sky. These will be set up at both observatories through the next year.

New telescopes and spectrographs are also being built to facilitate the Local Volume Mapper observations.

Carnegie has enabled SDSS to expand its reach to the Southern Hemisphere. I’m so pleased to see our role in this foundational effort expand with this next generation,” concluded Carnegie Observatories Director John Mulchaey.


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