Washington: Researchers have come up with a new scientific instrument, a “time machine” of sorts, which will allow scientists to study the earliest galaxies in the universe, which could never be studied before.
The five-ton instrument, the most advanced and sophisticated of its kind in the world, goes by the name MOSFIRE (Multi-Object Spectrometer for Infra-Red Exploration) and has been installed in the Keck I Telescope at the W.M. Keck Observatory atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii.
MOSFIRE gathers light in infrared wavelengths — invisible to the human eye — allowing it to penetrate cosmic dust and see distant objects whose light has been stretched or “redshifted” to the infrared by the expansion of the universe.
“The instrument was designed to study the most distant, faintest galaxies,” said UCLA physics and astronomy professor Ian S. McLean, project leader on MOSFIRE and director of UCLA’s Infrared Laboratory for Astrophysics.
“When we look at the most distant galaxies, we see them not as they are now but as they were when the light left them that is just now arriving here. Some of the galaxies that we are studying were formed some 10 billion years ago — only a few billion years after the Big Bang.
“We are looking back in time to the era of the formation of some of the very first galaxies, which are small and very faint. That is an era that we need to study if we are going to understand the large-scale structure of the universe.”
With MOSFIRE, it will now become much easier to identify faint galaxies, “families of galaxies” and merging galaxies. The instrument also will enable detailed observations of planets orbiting nearby stars, star formation within our own galaxy, the distribution of dark matter in the universe and much more.
“We would like to study the environment of those early galaxies,” said McLean, who built the instrument with colleagues from UCLA, the California Institute of Technology and UC Santa Cruz, along with industrial sub-contractors.
“Sometimes there are large clusters with thousands of galaxies, sometimes small clusters. Often, black holes formed in the centers of galaxies.”
Light collected by the Keck I Telescope was fed into MOSFIRE for the first time on April 4, producing an astronomical image. Astronomers are expected to start using MOSFIRE by September, following testing and evaluation in May and June.
MOSFIRE allows astronomers to take an infrared image of a field and to study 46 galaxies simultaneously, providing the infrared spectrum for each galaxy. Currently, it can take three hours or longer to obtain a good spectrum of just one galaxy, McLean noted.