Mass. – Amateur stargazers and high-level astronomers alike
are now able to view a half-million galaxies and 162 million stars
on their home computers, thanks to a massive release of images
from an infrared sky survey. University of Massachusetts astronomer
Michael Skrutskie is lead investigator for the project, which
is sponsored by NASA and the National Science Foundation.

computer with a Web browser can be transformed into a desktop
observatory,” said Skrutskie. The 1.9 million images would fill
6,000 CD-ROMs, equivalent to 4,000 gigabytes or four terabytes
of computer hard-disk space.

general public can see a menagerie of objects in infrared wavelengths
that they couldn’t see in any other way,” said project scientist
Roc Cutri of the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center (IPAC)
in Pasadena, Calif. IPAC is operated by NASA’s Jet Propulsion
Laboratory and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech),
both in Pasadena.

“The current release is based on a volume of data several hundred
times larger than that contained in the human genome,” said Skrutskie.
“Astronomers will become cosmic geneticists, searching out patterns
in these sky maps to decode the structure and origin of the Milky
Way and the surrounding nearby Universe.”

images were gathered by the Two-Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS),
twin infrared telescopes that see wavelengths beyond red light
in the rainbow of visible colors. Infrared light is emitted by
humans and all objects with temperatures above absolute zero (-273
Celsius or -459 Fahrenheit). Infrared light penetrates the obscuring
dust that pervades the Milky Way Galaxy, and can detect heat from
very cool objects not visible with optical telescopes.

The 2MASS survey, a collaborative effort between UMass and IPAC,
uses two highly automated, 51-inch (1.3-meter) diameter telescopes,
one at Mount Hopkins, Ariz., the other at Cerro Tololo, Chile.

scientists, this computerized data represents a quantum leap from
earlier infrared surveys,” Cutri said. “They can study properties
of all these objects, create a model of the Milky Way, and map
distribution of galaxies in the local universe.”

the most extensive infrared astronomical survey to date, began
operations in 1997. UMass was responsible for the development
and construction of the 2MASS telescopes and cameras and manages
the collection of survey data. IPAC combines and processes 2MASS
images into usable data. Observations will conclude in 2001, with
final processing of the data and release to the public by 2003.

Various discoveries highlight the scientific potential of the
2MASS data. For instance, astronomers had to revise a century-old
classification system when 2MASS uncovered numerous stars very
different from known classes of stars. They also used 2MASS data
to discover the coolest known brown dwarfs, or failed stars; detect
previously unknown star clusters within, and galaxies beyond,
the Milky Way; discover and map regions of space where stars are
born; and find a new population of galaxies, quasars, and super-massive
black holes.

of NASA’s Origins Program, 2MASS is funded by NASA’s Office of
Space Science and the National Science Foundation. 2MASS results
will benefit such future Origins missions as the Space Infrared
Telescope Facility and Next Generation Space Telescope, and will
help scientists plan observations for the Hubble Space Telescope
and the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. JPL
manages the program for NASA’s Office of Space Science, Washington,
DC. JPL is a division of Caltech.


Michael Skrutskie can be contacted at 413-545-2456 or
A parallel release is being issued today by NASA and its Jet Propulsion
Lab. A sampling of the images is posted online at
and includes the center of our Milky Way Galaxy, the hat-shaped
Sombrero Galaxy, and the Orion Nebula. Additional information
about 2MASS and the latest release is available at the 2MASS/IPAC
web site at

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