The world’s most powerful infrared survey camera will survey large regions of the sky at infrared wavelengths and is expected to discover both the nearest objects outside our Solar System and the farthest known objects in the Universe.
The Wide Field Camera has the largest field of view of any astronomical infrared camera in the world. In a single exposure it can image an area of the sky equal to that of the full moon. “The ability to see such a large area at once, with state-of-the-art detectors, makes WFCAM the fastest infrared survey instrument in the world, bar none.” said Dr Andy Adamson, Head of Operations for UKIRT.
WFCAM detects infrared light, or heat radiation, which is the key to understanding many types of astronomical objects. These include stars in our own Galaxy and beyond, interstellar clouds, the mysterious “failed stars” known as brown dwarfs, and quasars at the edge of the observable Universe.
“WFCAM will be used to do surveys of the infrared sky which will detect objects one hundred times fainter than those in the deepest existing surveys. This survey programme will take up to seven years to complete and will provide astronomers with a picture of the infrared sky to unprecedented depth.” said Dr Paul Hirst, WFCAM Instrument Scientist at UKIRT.
As part of its commissioning, led by Dr Hirst and Project Scientist Dr Mark Casali, WFCAM was trained on a region of star formation in the constellation of Orion, about 1500 light years from Earth. The full WFCAM image area is 1200 times larger than that covered by UKIRT’s previous infrared camera UFTI, and 3600 times larger than that covered by the Hubble Space Telescope’s infrared camera NICMOS. The astronomers combined observations with different infrared filters to give a ’colour’ image, showing dramatic clouds of gas and dust in the southern half of the Orion nebula. The images reveal not only the illuminated edges of clouds and filaments, but also thousands of young stars that are otherwise hidden from view at visible light wavelengths by the gas and dust.