Scientists publish new map showing 4.4 million objects in outer space in astonishing detail

25 February 2022

A treasure trove of images of outer space has been released to the public for the first time, as images from the LOFAR radio telescope are published – made by possible by data processing at the University of Hertfordshire.

Over the past seven years, an international team of scientists has mapped more than a quarter of the northern sky using the Low Frequency Array (LOFAR), a pan-European radio telescope.

The project has revealed an incredibly detailed map of more than 4.4 million far-off objects – and the collection of images is now being made available for the public to explore.

Including galaxies that harbour massive black holes, and rapidly growing new stars, the vast majority of these objects are billions of light years away. Researchers have also discovered rare objects including colliding groups of distant galaxies and flaring stars within the Milky Way.

The large majority of the images were created in the UK at the University of Hertfordshire, where researchers processed data from LOFAR’s network of telescopes across the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, France, Ireland, Latvia, Sweden and the UK.

Working with teams in the Netherlands and Italy, the University’s state-of-the-art high-performance computing facility deployed algorithms to process the data. The project encompassed 3,500 hours of observations, which occupy 8 petabytes of disk space – equivalent to approximately 20,000 laptops of data.

The result is a map of around 4.4 million objects – one million of which have never been seen before with any telescope, and almost four million of which are new discoveries at radio wavelengths. As well as providing an amazing picture of the distant universe, the data in the release can be used by other scientists to search for a wide range of signals – such as those from nearby planets or galaxies, right through to faint signatures in the distant Universe.

Professor Martin Hardcastle, Head of Physics, Astronomy and Mathematics at the University of Hertfordshire, explained: “We are only able to observe and understand the significance of these objects because of advances in computing algorithms, meaning we can now process vast amounts of data. The scale of the data, and the level of detail in the resulting map, is astonishing – and the most exciting thing is that this is only 27% of the overall survey. I am sure there is a wealth of discoveries still to come, as LOFAR continues to reveal more of the distant universe”.

The significance of today’s announcement is demonstrated by the flurry of new discoveries made by researchers who have had access to the data. The LOFAR research team has today published the largest ever study of colliding clusters of hundreds, or even thousands, of galaxies, offering new insights into magnetic fields and high energy particles in the Universe’s largest structures.

Other discoveries by international astronomers have included: so-called ‘jellyfish galaxies’, which shed material as they travel; curious signals from nearby stars that may be caused by orbiting exoplanets; eruptions of black holes that shape their local environment; and the discovery of so many radio galaxies of all shapes, sizes and ages, that a citizen science project has been set up, led from the University of Hertfordshire, to help find new black holes.

Timothy Shimwell, astronomer at ASTRON and Leiden University, commented: “This project is so exciting to work on. 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”.

Details of the data release will be published in Astronomy & Astrophysics journal. More information can be found on the LOFAR surveys website.

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