Nav: Home

Zwicky Transient Facility sees 'first light'

November 14, 2017

A new robotic camera with the ability to capture hundreds of thousands of stars and galaxies in a single shot has taken its first image of the sky -- an event astronomers refer to as "first light." The camera is the centerpiece of a new automated sky survey project called the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF), based at Caltech's Palomar Observatory near San Diego, California.

As partners in the ZTF effort, University of Maryland astronomers made important contributions to the planning and design of the survey project. UMD participation in ZTF is facilitated by the Joint Space-Science Institute, a partnership between UMD and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Every night, ZTF's camera will scan a large swath of the Northern sky, discovering objects and events that vary in brightness over time, collectively known as transients. Survey targets will include explosive supernovae, hungry black holes, and hurtling asteroids and comets.

"The ZTF survey will be transformative for the study of supermassive black holes feasting on stars in the centers of galaxies," said Suvi Gezari, an assistant professor of astronomy at UMD and a fellow of the Joint Space-Science Institute whose research focuses on time-domain astronomy. "The timing of these events, known as tidal disruption events, can be used to constrain the mass and spin of black holes. Data from ZTF may also offer a rare, real-time glimpse into the formation of an accretion disk -- and possibly relativistic jets--around a supermassive black hole."

From 2009 to 2017, ZTF's predecessor, the Palomar Transient Factory (PTF), caught the blinking and flaring of transient objects in the sky. The project took advantage of the Palomar Observatory's three telescopes--the automated 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope, the automated 60-inch telescope and the 200-inch Hale Telescope.

During PTF's surveys, the Oschin Telescope acted as the discovery engine, then the 60-inch telescope followed up on the targets, gathering information about their identities. From there, astronomers used either the Hale Telescope, the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, or the Discovery Channel Telescope in Arizona to zoom in on the various cosmic phenomena that enliven our night skies.

The ZTF survey is the powerful sequel to PTF. It is named after Caltech's first astrophysicist, Fritz Zwicky, who discovered 120 supernovae in his lifetime. Recently installed at the Oschin Telescope, ZTF's new survey camera can take in seven times more sky in a single image than its predecessor. At maximum resolution, each ZTF camera image is 24,000 by 24,000 pixels--so huge that the images are difficult to display on a normal computer screen.

Additionally, ZTF's upgraded electronics and telescope drive systems enable the camera to take more than twice as many exposures every night. Astronomers will not only be able to discover more transient objects, they will also be able to catch more ephemeral features that appear and fade quickly.

"There's a lot of activity happening in our night skies," said Shrinivas (Shri) Kulkarni, the principal investigator for ZTF and the George Ellery Hale Professor of Astronomy and Planetary Science at Caltech. "In fact, every second, somewhere in the universe, there's a supernova that's exploding. Of course, we can't see them all but with ZTF we will see up to tens of thousands of explosive transients every year over the three-year lifetime of the project."

Images from ZTF will be adjusted, cleaned and calibrated at IPAC, Caltech's astronomy and data center. Software will search the flood of ZTF data for light sources--in particular those that change or move. These data will be made public to the entire astronomy community for both research and education.

"Data from ZTF presents a really great opportunity for students here at UMD, because large survey programs like ZTF will play a big role in the future of astronomy," said Melissa Hayes-Gehrke, a principal lecturer and undergraduate director of astronomy at UMD. Hayes-Gehrke has led efforts to develop educational materials that make use of data from PTF and ZTF. "It is fantastic to get students in on the ground floor. Astronomers will be mining this data for years to come, so this is an important step to help prepare students for a career in research."

ZTF's new first-light image is a taste of what's to come. It showcases the large scale of the images and highlights the turbulent star-forming nebula known as Orion.

Astronomers are excited for the unexpected findings that ZTF will likely yield. One of PTF's biggest discoveries came in 2011 when it caught a supernova, named PTF11kly, just hours after it exploded. The ZTF survey will further expand astronomers' knowledge of a host of cosmic objects, including young supernovae, planets around young stars, exotic binary star systems and near-Earth comets and asteroids.

"I am most excited for ZTF's potential to catch interesting comet outbursts. We know that they happen, we just don't know how often. Many are caught by amateur astronomers," said Dennis Bodewits, an astronomy associate research scientist at UMD who specializes in comet research. "This will change with ZTF, which will pick up between 30 to 50 comets every time it scans the whole sky. Comets are found all over the sky, so we're interested in seeing as many of them as we can, in as much detail as possible."

The ZTF survey will also contribute to the burgeoning field of multi-messenger astrophysics. Broadly stated, this is the search for optical counterparts to extreme transient events seen with other instruments that detect different signals, or messengers. Examples include gravitational wave events observed by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) and the Virgo detector; neutrino events observed by the IceCube South Pole Neutrino Observatory; and gamma-ray bursts seen by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope and Swift Gamma-ray Burst Mission.

"What excites me most about ZTF is the huge field of view it will open up to connect optical transients with extreme events," said Julie McEnery, Fermi project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, adjunct associate professor of physics at UMD and a co-director of the Joint Space-Science Institute. "For future gravitational wave events from LIGO and Virgo, we'll be given a very large region of the sky to search. Neutrino events and gamma-ray bursts are also not well localized. The ZTF survey will allow us to connect the optical universe to all three of these extreme phenomena."

The science survey phase of ZTF is scheduled to begin in February of 2018. The project will be completed by the end of 2020. In the future, even larger surveys will build on ZTF's rapid scans of the sky, such as the upcoming Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), scheduled to be operational in 2023.
About half of the funding for ZTF is provided by the National Science Foundation. The remainder is provided by its partners, including the Weizmann Institute for Science, the Oskar Klein Center at Stockholm University, the University of Maryland, the University of Washington, the Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron, Humboldt University, Los Alamos National Laboratory, the TANGO Consortium of Taiwan, the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The content of this article does not necessarily reflect the views of these organizations.

This release is based on text originally provided by Caltech.

Media Relations Contact:

Matthew Wright

University of Maryland
College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences
2300 Symons Hall
College Park, MD 20742

About the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences

The College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences at the University of Maryland educates more than 7,000 future scientific leaders in its undergraduate and graduate programs each year. The college's 10 departments and more than a dozen interdisciplinary research centers foster scientific discovery with annual sponsored research funding exceeding $150 million.

University of Maryland

Related Black Holes Articles:

Supermassive black holes found in 2 tiny galaxies
U astronomers and colleagues have found two ultra-compact dwarf galaxies with supermassive black holes, the second and third such galaxies found to harbor the objects.
Stars born in winds from supermassive black holes
Observations using ESO's Very Large Telescope have revealed stars forming within powerful outflows of material blasted out from supermassive black holes at the cores of galaxies.
Did LIGO detect black holes or gravastars?
After the first direct detection of gravitational waves that was announced last February by the LIGO Scientific Collaboration and made news all over the world, Luciano Rezzolla (Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany) and Cecilia Chirenti (Federal University of ABC in Santo André, Brazil) set out to test whether the observed signal could have been a gravastar or not.
New research reveals hundreds of undiscovered black holes
Computer simulations of a spherical collection of stars known as 'NGC 6101' reveal that it contains hundreds of black holes, until now thought impossible.
Chorus of black holes radiates X-rays
The NuSTAR mission is identifying which black holes erupt with the highest-energy X-rays.
Did the LIGO gravitational waves originate from primordial black holes?
Binary black holes recently discovered by the LIGO-Virgo collaboration could be primordial entities that formed just after the Big Bang, report Japanese astrophysicists.
A new look at the galaxy-shaping power of black holes
Data from a now-defunct satellite is providing new insights into the complex tug-of-war between galaxies, the hot plasma that surrounds them, and the giant black holes that lurk in their centers.
The energy spectrum of particles will help make out black holes
Scientists from MIPT, the Institute for Theoretical and Experimental Physics, and the National Research University Higher School of Economics have devised a method of distinguishing black holes from compact massive objects that are externally indistinguishable from one another.
Using gravitational waves to catch runaway black holes
Black holes are the most powerful gravitational force in the universe.
Black holes and measuring gravitational waves
The supermassive black holes found at the center of every galaxy, including our own Milky Way, may, on average, be smaller than we thought, according to work led by University of Southampton astronomer Dr.

Related Black Holes Reading:

The Little Book of Black Holes (Science Essentials)
by Steven S. Gubser (Author), Frans Pretorius (Author)

Dive into a mind-bending exploration of the physics of black holes

Black holes, predicted by Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity more than a century ago, have long intrigued scientists and the public with their bizarre and fantastical properties. Although Einstein understood that black holes were mathematical solutions to his equations, he never accepted their physical reality―a viewpoint many shared. This all changed in the 1960s and 1970s, when a deeper conceptual understanding of black holes developed just as new observations revealed the existence of quasars... View Details

Black Holes (A True Book)
by Ker Than (Author)

Describes how black holes form, their different sizes, how scientists find black holes in space, and if anything can escape from its gravitational pull. View Details

Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein's Outrageous Legacy (Commonwealth Fund Book Program)
by Kip S. Thorne (Author), Stephen Hawking (Foreword)

Winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics

Ever since Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity burst upon the world in 1915 some of the most brilliant minds of our century have sought to decipher the mysteries bequeathed by that theory, a legacy so unthinkable in some respects that even Einstein himself rejected them.

Which of these bizarre phenomena, if any, can really exist in our universe? Black holes, down which anything can fall but from which nothing can return; wormholes, short spacewarps connecting regions of the cosmos; singularities, where... View Details

A Black Hole Is Not a Hole
by Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano (Author), Michael Carroll (Illustrator)

Budding astronomers and scientists will love this humorous introduction to the extremely complex concept of black holes. With space facts and answers about the galaxies (ours, and others) A Black Hole is NOT a Hole takes readers on a ride that will stretch their minds around the phenomenon known as a black hole.

In lively and text, the book starts off with a thorough explanation of gravity and the role it plays in the formation of black holes. Paintings by Michael Carroll, coupled with real telescopic images, help readers visualize the facts and ideas presented in the... View Details

Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries
by Neil deGrasse Tyson (Author)

“[Tyson] tackles a great range of subjects . . . with great humor, humility, and―most important― humanity.” ―Entertainment Weekly

Loyal readers of the monthly "Universe" essays in Natural History magazine have long recognized Neil deGrasse Tyson's talent for guiding them through the mysteries of the cosmos with clarity and enthusiasm. Bringing together more than forty of Tyson's favorite essays, ?Death by Black Hole? explores a myriad of cosmic topics, from what it would be like to be inside a black hole to the movie industry's... View Details

Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space
by Janna Levin (Author)

The authoritative story of Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish, and Kip Thorne’s Nobel Prize–winning discovery of gravitational waves—by an eminent theoretical astrophysicist and award-winning writer.

With A New Preface

In 1916, Einstein predicted the presence of gravitational waves. One century later, we are recording the first sounds from space, evidence of the waves’ existence caused by the collision of two black holes. An authoritative account of the headline-making discovery by theoretical astrophysicist and award-winning writer Janna Levin, Black Hole Blues... View Details

Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays
by Stephen W. Hawking (Author)


In his phenomenal bestseller A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking literally transformed the way we think about physics, the universe, reality itself. In these thirteen essays and one remarkable extended interview, the man widely regarded as the most brilliant theoretical physicist since Einstein returns to reveal an amazing array of possibilities for understanding our universe.

Building on... View Details

Black Hole (Pantheon Graphic Novels)
by Charles Burns (Author)

Winner of the Eisner, Harvey, and Ignatz Awards

The setting: suburban Seattle, the mid-1970s. We learn from the outset that a strange plague has descended upon the area’s teenagers, transmitted by sexual contact. The disease is manifested in any number of ways — from the hideously grotesque to the subtle (and concealable) — but once you’ve got it, that’s it. There’s no turning back.

As we inhabit the heads of several key characters — some kids who have it, some who don’t, some who are about to get it — what... View Details

Black Holes: And Other Bizarre Space Objects (Science Frontiers (Paperback))
by David Jefferis (Author)

Examines the black hole, black hole hunters, what we could find in the future, and more. View Details

The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics
by Leonard Susskind (Author)

At the beginning of the 21st century, physics is being driven to very unfamiliar territory--the domain of the incredibly small and the incredibly heavy. The new world is a world in which both quantum mechanics and gravity are equally important. But mysteries remain. One of the biggest involved black holes. Famed physicist Stephen Hawking claimed that anything sucked in a black hole was lost forever. For three decades, Leonard Susskind and Hawking clashed over the answer to this problem. Finally, in 2004, Hawking conceded.

THE BLACK HOLE WAR will explain the mind-blowing science that... View Details

Best Science Podcasts 2018

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2018. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

The Consequences Of Racism
What does it mean to be judged before you walk through the door? What are the consequences? This week, TED speakers delve into the ways racism impacts our lives, from education, to health, to safety. Guests include poet and writer Clint Smith, writer and activist Miriam Zoila Pérez, educator Dena Simmons, and former prosecutor Adam Foss.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#465 How The Nose Knows
We've all got a nose but how does it work? Why do we like some smells and not others, and why can we all agree that some smells are good and some smells are bad, while others are dependant on personal or cultural preferences? We speak with Asifa Majid, Professor of Language, Communication and Cultural Cognition at Radboud University, about the intersection of culture, language, and smell. And we level up on our olfactory neuroscience with University of Pennsylvania Professor Jay Gottfried.