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Earliest galaxies made visible by 'Mosfire' device

Five-ton spectrometer can see through cosmic dust to the most distant and faintest galaxies, letting scientists study the large-scale structure of the universe.

One of the first infrared pictures from Mosfire shows two galaxies in collision: NGC4038 (up top) and NGC4039. These are known as the "Antennae galaxies," which are about 45 million light years away, in the constellation of Corvus. Ian S. McLean/W.M. Keck Observatory

Talk about a DIY project. Astronomers and others at several U.S. universities have just about completed work on a seven-year, $14 million project to build a spectrometer that will enable them to study the earliest galaxies in the universe.

The 5-ton Mosfire (Multi-Object Spectrometer for Infra-Red Exploration) gathers infrared light and can thus see through cosmic dust to distant objects whose light has been stretched into the infrared spectrum by the expansion of the universe.

"The instrument was designed to study the most distant, faintest galaxies," project leader Ian S. McLean said in a press release. McLean is director of the University of California at Los Angeles' Infrared Laboratory for Astrophysics. He said some of the galaxies being looked at were formed about 10 billion years ago. "We are looking back in time to the era of the formation of some of the very first galaxies... an era that we need to study if we are going to understand the large-scale structure of the universe."

The device will also allow for detailed study of planets orbiting nearby stars; star formation within our own galaxy; and the distribution of dark matter in the universe, among other things.

Earlier this month, light collected by the Keck I telescope was fed into Mosfire for the first time, producing an astronomical image. Mosfire

Mosfire has been installed in the Keck I telescope at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii and is currently being tested. It should officially be up and running for actual research by September. The device's infrared detectors are apparently about five times more sensitive than those of the spectrometer that hitherto has been used at Keck: Nirspec (Near Infrared Spectrograph), also overseen by McLean.

Nirspec has detected water on comets, provided information on the stars orbiting the black hole at the Milky Way's heart, and enabled the discovery of the chemical composition of brown dwarfs, the failed stars that are considered the "missing link" between gas giant planets such as Jupiter and small, low-mass stars.

Mosfire would have taken twice as much money to make had it not been built from scratch by McLean and his team, along with industrial subcontractors, UCLA said.

Most of the device's mechanical parts were built at UCLA and Caltech, and the computer programming was led by UCLA. The optics were designed by a U.C. Santa Cruz astronomy and astrophysics professor.

Mosfire was funded by the National Science Foundation's Telescope System Instrumentation program and by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore and his wife.

The truly astronomically minded can check out a detailed rundown of Mosfire's specs here.