Researchers and students at the School of Earth and Space Exploration will design and build the optics and electronics for a new, highly sensitive camera, dubbed TolTEC, for the Large Millimeter Telescope in Mexico. The camera will enable astronomers to observe deep inside galactic clouds of obscuring dust in regions of space where stars are being born. It will also help cosmologists trace the evolution of galaxies in the early universe. Image by LMT/James Lowenthal

In international experiment, ASU astronomers explore mysteries of star formation

Uniquely sensitive camera, with optics and electronics designed and built at ASU, will probe into giant clouds of interstellar dust

How do stars form deep inside clouds of molecular gas? What’s the history of star formation throughout cosmic time? When did the first stars form? And how did they produce the materials necessary for life on Earth?

Big eye

The new camera will be attached to a giant telescope in Mexico. On top of the 15,000-foot Sierra Negra in the state of Puebla sits the Large Millimeter Telescope (pictured above), with a 50-meter (164-foot) diameter main mirror.

Hunting dusty galaxies

“Over the last decade, smaller cameras and telescopes have discovered thousands of these galaxies,” Mauskopf said. “This new project will allow a complete census of dusty galaxies in the universe and enable us to truly begin to understand their properties.”

Because of interstellar dust, star-forming regions such as the Eagle Nebula (M16) show relatively little when observed in visible light. This infrared view by the Herschel Space Observatory shows star formation activity inside the giant cloud of dusty gas. But the new TolTEC camera (with ASU optics and electronics) will produce views of stellar nurseries like this with finer detail.

Major step forward

Observations that require today’s telescopes five years to complete will be done in a little more than a week with TolTEC.

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