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Our 3D universe revealed

Near infra-red 3D image of our local Universe taken by 2MASS Redshift Survey
Panoramic view of the entire near-infrared sky above the Earth reveals the distribution of galaxies beyond the Milky Way. Blue objects are nearest sources, green are at a moderate distance and red are the furthest. Image courtesy of Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

The most detailed 3D map ever made of our local universe in the near infra-red has just been completed by astronomers. The Micron All-Sky Survey (2MASS) Redshift Survey collected 10 TBs of images from the sky and is also the most comprehensive picture we have of the distribution of galaxies and dark matter. It extends to a distance of 380 million light-years from Earth and has taken 10 years to complete.

Two automated telescopes, one at the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory in Arizona, US, and another at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile scanned near-infrared wavelengths of more than 43,000 galaxies beyond the Milky Way. As a galaxy moves further away from us due to the expansion of the Universe, its observable light is red-shifted or stretched to longer wavelengths. The farther a galaxy is the greater its redshift. This is used to measure its distance relative to us.

Near-infrared light penetrates the dust that obscures the Milky Way's galactic plane better than visible light, allowing a clearer view than before. To create the stunning detail scientists used Interactive Data Language (IDL), a programming language used in astronomy and medical imaging to create visualizations out of complex data sets.

"This will probably be the deepest galactic map in the coming decades and a really important resource for studying the motion of galaxies and understanding dark matter," said Karen Masters, at the University of Portsmouth, UK, who presented the map in the 218th meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

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