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Researchers unveil millions of new galaxies in new map of the universe

An international team of astronomers and scientists say they have officially mapped over a quarter of the entire northern sky using a powerful radio telescope.

(CN) — Scientists offered Friday an unprecedented glimpse into millions of new galaxies beyond the northern sky with a newly released snapshot of the universe.

While astronomers have spent centuries combing through the stars and seeking to unravel the mysteries behind each flickering light in the sky, there is still so much of the universe humans have never seen. Humankind has only mapped out a fraction of the known universe to date, partially due to technological constraints of the past, but also the reality that the speed of light’s ability to send us send far-off information has its own limits.  

Now, to help fill in some of those crucial gaps in our cosmic knowledge, researchers from Durham University in the U.K. worked with an international team to map roughly 4.4 million galaxies across the universe — a map that now details over a quarter of the entire northern sky.

The paper announcing the findings, published Friday in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics, says the new map was made possible by using data from the Low Frequency Array (LOFAR), a pan-European radio telescope that uses radio wavelengths to pick up on signals and information other types of telescopes are blind to. Friday’s release currently serves as the largest survey of data ever produced by the European telescope.

“This project is so exciting to work on,” says Timothy Shimwell, one of the authors of the paper and astronomer from ASTRON and Leiden University in The Netherlands. “Each time we create a map our screens are filled with new discoveries and objects that have never before been seen by human eyes. Exploring the unfamiliar phenomena that glow in the energetic radio universe is such an incredible experience and our team is thrilled to be able to release these maps publicly.”

Of the millions of new objects mapped in the sky, experts say most of them are either galaxies that are home to massive black holes or stars billions of light years away that are still growing. They also found a few flaring stars — a type of star that can suddenly experience a massive uptick in brightness for a few minutes — and even some rare distant galaxies that appear to have collided together.

Crafting such a detailed map, however, was by no means a small feat. The map required researchers to make entirely new and highly advanced data processing algorithms capable of processing more than 3,000 hours of stellar observations. The algorithms worked on the data across a network of computers around Europe that together accounted for 8 petabytes of disk space — a collection of data comparable to about 20,000 laptops or four trillion filled out printed pages.

But researchers stress that this is ultimately only the beginning. While Friday’s release makes up just about quarter of the northern sky, experts are hopeful that the cosmic trove of data will help future researchers uncover new answers on the evolution and innerworkings of the universe, potentially setting up scientists to enjoy numerous breakthroughs for years to come.  

“This release is only 27% of the entire survey and we anticipate it will lead to many more scientific breakthroughs in the future, including examining how the largest structures in the Universe grow, how black holes form and evolve, the physics governing the formation of stars in distant galaxies and even detailing the most spectacular phases in the life of stars in our own galaxy,” Shimwell says.

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