The ALHAMBRA project, led by researchers from the Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía and in which the University of Valencia has participated, has identified and classified more than half a million galaxies, after seven years of close observation of the universe from the Observatory of Calar Alto (CAHA, Almería) and thanks to a technique that breaks the stars energy in their colours through astronomical filters.
In addition, astronomers have calculated the distances from these galaxies to us with unprecedented accuracy. ALHAMBRA (Advanced Large, Homogeneous Area Medium Band Redshift Astronomical survey) has a system of twenty filters covering all wavelengths in the optical and three filters in the infrared, which allows to accurately determine the energy emitted by galaxies and the distance of half a million galaxies with unprecedented depth for the sample size.
The ALHAMBRA mapping represents an ambitious scientific project that has mobilised scientists from sixteen research institutes. Led by Mariano Moles (CEFCA) and developed in the Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía (IAA-CSIC), it was tailored designed to trace the universe evolution during the last ten million years. "ALHAMBRA represents a decisive step to board pressing issues in cosmology and astrophysics through photometric mapping, that allow getting the accuracy required to the distance of the detected objects," Moles says. Thus, "the unbiased character of these mappings allows obtaining relevant data for all cosmic scales and, in this sense, the ALHAMBRA project is a precursor of the new long-range mapping that is being proposed," the researcher adds.
Professor in Astronomy and Astrophysics at the Astronomic Observatory at the University of Valencia, Vicent Martínez has been one of the members of ALHAMBRA and explains that it is a mapping project on an area of the universe in which the range of cosmic distances achieved is "impressive and, therefore, it allows to scan the cosmic evolution as, in astronomy, looking away is to look at the past. We can get to know how galaxies were in early stages of the universe history." "The research team have been able to coordinate themselves using the 3.5 metres telescope of Calar Alto to get spectacular results. Part of the data has already been made available to the community. Their analysis will still provide more surprising results in the next months," the researcher of the University of Valencia adds.
Today, astronomers have either large area and shallow explorations or very deep samples of small regions of the sky that do not take into account what is known as cosmic variance, resulting from the fact that the universe has more and less dense regions of galaxies.
"In this sense, the ALHAMBRA project has allowed us to confirm that the COSMOS sampling, one of the most employed cosmological studies, is not representative of how galaxies are distributed in the universe because its area is limited in a space with over-density of galaxies with regard to the average; the proximity makes the galaxies to evolve faster, so that the evolutionary studies generated by COSMOS have a local character," Alberto Molino (IAA-CSIC) indicates.
Mapping applicable to all scales
The vision of the universe that ALHAMBRA allows, on one hand, to study how the stellar content of galaxies has changed over time, i.e, to know how, when and how much they have aged. Furthermore, to establish a clear relationship between the morphology, the content of the stars and the age of galaxies will allow us to finally understand which ones are the physical processes that rule the universe to those scales.
On the other hand, ALHAMBRA will make possible to approach how the galaxies are distributed in the universe. "In the last thirteen billion years, gravity has been responsible for the formation of structures, such as galaxies or stars," Alberto Molino, researcher of the Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía (IAA-CSIC) and member of the team, points out. "Studying how galaxies are arranged allows us to know how the physical properties that controlled the universe at earlier times were. It would be like knowing the place and conditions where the seeds were planted in a forest from the trees that we see today," the researcher shows.
The ALHAMBRA observations, in its look towards the immensity of the universe, have crossed enormous regions of our galaxy. To make a census of stars of the galactic halo, to discover variable stars, to know the frequency with which the stars pair off or to identify candidate stars to host other planets will allow exploring also the cosmic history of the Milky Way.
The imminent publication of the data will mean to have free access to the potential to the ALHAMBRA, not only for the international scientific community, but also for universities, scientific museums, astronomical associations or schools anywhere. The scientific value of this legacy will make of it a Spanish project of international reference in the study of the properties of galaxies, which also serves as propellant for future mapping generations such as JPAS, which will extend ALHAMBRA's work from a few regions of the sky to the whole observable universe.
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