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2MASS Team Wins Muhlmann Award from Astronomy Society of the Pacific

PASADENA, Calif.—The team members of the Two Micron All-Sky Survey (2MASS) have been named recipients of the Maria and Eric Muhlmann Award for 2006. The award was announced May 22 by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. 2MASS, a project based at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, involved team members from the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center (IPAC) at the California Institute of Technology and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Comprising twin telescopes located in Arizona and Chile over a 3.5-year period, 2MASS produced the first high-resolution digital survey of the complete infrared sky, providing the international astronomical community with an unprecedented global view of the Milky Way and nearby galaxies.

According to Mark Kay Hemenway, an astronomer at the University of Texas at Austin and secretary of the society's board of directors, the Muhlmann Award is given "for recent significant observational results made possible by innovative advances in astronomical instrumentation, software, or observational infrastructure." 2MASS is being recognized, Hemenway said, especially for the dedication and guidance of the project's leaders in construction of the system and its level of sophistication.

"This award is a gratifying recognition of the tremendously positive response of the astronomical community to the 2MASS data," said George Helou, executive director of IPAC. "The 2MASS work at IPAC continues a long and proud Caltech tradition of surveys and catalogs of momentous impact, from the Palomar Sky Survey to the original Two Micron Sky Survey by Gerry Neugebauer and Robert Leighton, to the Infrared Astronomical Satellite mission." To cover the entire sky, 2MASS used two highly automated, 1.3-meter (51-inch) diameter telescopes, one at Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory on Mount Hopkins, Arizona, the other at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile. The Arizona telescope began operations in June of 1997, while the Chilean telescope began scanning the sky in March 1998. Both facilities completed their work on February 15, 2001.

The successful completion of observations marked a milestone in modern astronomy, and the legacy continues. In fact, astronomers are currently using 2MASS data extensively to support for research on brown dwarfs, the Milky Way's structure, the distribution of other galaxies in the nearby universe, and also for observations by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. According to Michael Skrutskie, the principal investigator of the project who is now at the University of Virginia, the 2MASS project resulted in databases and source catalogs that are "a treasure trove which will be mined for discovery by scientists and the public alike for decades to come."

Project Manager Rae Stiening of the University of Massachusetts Amherst noted at one point during 2MASS operations, "The idea of a survey is an old human activity, but the Two Micron All-Sky Survey has a modern twist. Just as English admiralty sent Captain Cook and others to map the world, this new survey has mapped the nearby universe."

Stiening oversaw the development and construction of the 2MASS telescopes and cameras and managed the collection of survey data. At Caltech, IPAC developed the software system to convert raw digital data from the telescopes into images and catalogs useful to astronomers. IPAC also archived and distributed those data to the public via the Internet, in essence, turning home computers into desktop observatories.

"2MASS has shown the importance and remarkable value returned by large-area surveys of the sky by enabling research in virtually every area of astronomy by scientists all over the world," added Roc Cutri, an astronomer at IPAC who worked on the project. "It has also served to inspire the next generation of infrared sky surveys that are being planned by American and European astronomers." Enough data were gathered to fill more than 2,000 hard drives on an average home computer. 2MASS was the most thorough census ever made of the Milky Way galaxy and the nearby universe. It detected infrared wavelengths that are longer than the red light in the rainbow of visible colors. Infrared light penetrates dust more effectively than visible light, so it is particularly useful for detecting objects obscured within the Milky Way, as well as the faint heat of very cool objects that give off very little visible light of their own.

The survey:

-Uncovered numerous stars with such unique characteristics that astronomers have had to update a century-old classification system of known types of stars, and also unveiled the coolest brown dwarfs, or failed stars, known to date; -Detected previously unknown galaxies seen behind the disk of the Milky Way; -Mapped new star-birth regions both in the Milky Way and in other galaxies; and -Discovered many new, dust-obscured active galaxies and quasars in the distant reaches of the universe that were missed by earlier surveys that used visible and ultraviolet light. 2MASS was primarily funded by NASA's Office of Space Science. Additional funding was provided by the National Science Foundation. A sampling of 2MASS images is posted at http://www.ipac.caltech.edu/2mass/gallery. Additional information about 2MASS is available at http://www.ipac.caltech.edu/2mass and at http://pegasus.astro.umass.edu/GradProg/2mass.html

Written by Robert Tindol

Caltech Media Relations