(Nanowerk News) APEX, the Atacama Pathfinder EXperiment telescope, is located at 5100 metres above sea level on the Chajnantor Plateau in Chile's Atacama region. The ATLASGAL survey took advantage of the unique characteristics of the telescope to provide a detailed view of the distribution of cold dense gas along the plane of the Milky Way galaxy . The new image includes most of the regions of star formation in the southern Milky Way .
This image of the Milky Way has been released to mark the completion of the APEX Telescope Large Area Survey of the Galaxy (ATLASGAL). The APEX telescope in Chile has mapped the full area of the Galactic Plane visible from the southern hemisphere for the first time at submillimetre wavelengths — between infrared light and radio waves — and in finer detail than recent space-based surveys. The APEX data, at a wavelength of 0.87 millimetres, shows up in red and the background blue image was imaged at shorter infrared wavelengths by the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope as part of the GLIMPSE survey. The fainter extended red structures come from complementary observations made by ESA's Planck satellite. In this case the image has been cut into three pieces for convenience. (Image: ESO/APEX/ATLASGAL consortium/NASA/GLIMPSE consortium/ESA/Planck) (click on image to enlarge)
The new ATLASGAL maps cover an area of sky 140 degrees long and 3 degrees wide, more than four times larger than the first ATLASGAL release . The new maps are also of higher quality, as some areas were re-observed to obtain a more uniform data quality over the whole survey area.
The ATLASGAL survey is the single most successful APEX large programme with nearly 70 associated science papers already published, and its legacy will expand much further with all the reduced data products now available to the full astronomical community .
At the heart of APEX are its sensitive instruments. One of these, LABOCA (the LArge BOlometer Camera) was used for the ATLASGAL survey. LABOCA measures incoming radiation by registering the tiny rise in temperature it causes on its detectors and can detect emission from the cold dark dust bands obscuring the stellar light.
The new release of ATLASGAL complements observations from ESA's Planck satellite . The combination of the Planck and APEX data allowed astronomers to detect emission spread over a larger area of sky and to estimate from it the fraction of dense gas in the inner Galaxy. The ATLASGAL data were also used to create a complete census of cold and massive clouds where new generations of stars are forming.
This comparison shows the central regions of the Milky Way observed at different wavelengths. The top panel shows compact sources of submillimetre radiation detected by APEX as part of the ATLASGAL survey, combined with complementary data from ESA’s Planck satellite, to capture more extended features. The second panel shows the same region as seen in shorter, infrared, wavelengths by the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope. The third panel shows the same part of sky again at even shorter wavelengths, the near-infrared, as seen by ESO’s VISTA infrared survey telescope at the Paranal Observatory in Chile. Regions appearing as dark dust tendrils here show up brightly in the ATLASGAL view. Finally the bottom picture shows the more familiar view in visible light, where most of the more distant structures are hidden from view. The significance of the colours varies from image to image and they cannot be directly compared. (Image: ESO/ATLASGAL consortium/NASA/GLIMPSE consortium/VVV Survey/ESA/Planck/D. Minniti/S. Guisard
Acknowledgement: Ignacio Toledo, Martin Kornmesser) (click on image to enlarge)
"ATLASGAL provides exciting insights into where the next generationof high-mass stars and clusters form. By combining these with observations from Planck, we can now obtain a link to the large-scale structures of giant molecular clouds," remarks Timea Csengeri from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (MPIfR), Bonn, Germany, who led the work of combining the APEX and Planck data.
The APEX telescope recently celebrated ten years of successful research on the cold Universe. It plays an important role not only as pathfinder, but also as a complementary facility to ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, which is also located on the Chajnantor Plateau. APEX is based on a prototype antenna constructed for the ALMA project, and it has found many targets that ALMA can study in great detail.
Leonardo Testi from ESO, who is a member of the ATLASGAL team and the European Project Scientist for the ALMA project, concludes: "ATLASGAL has allowed us to have a new and transformational look at the dense interstellar medium of our own galaxy, the Milky Way. The new release of the full survey opens up the possibility to mine this marvellous dataset for new discoveries. Many teams of scientists are already using the ATLASGAL data to plan for detailed ALMA follow-up."
 The map was constructed from individual APEX observations of radiation with a wavelength of 870 µm (0.87 millimetres).
 The northern part of the Milky Way had already been mapped by the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT - http://www.eaobservatory.org/jcmt/) and other telescopes, but the southern sky is particularly important as it includes the Galactic Centre, and because it is accessible for detailed follow-up observations with ALMA.
 The first data release covered an area of approximately 95 square degrees, a very long and narrow strip along the Galactic Plane two degrees wide and over 40 degrees long. The final maps now cover 420 square degrees, more than four times larger.
 The data products are available through the ESO archive.
 The Planck data coverhe full sky, but with poor spatial resolution. ATLASGAL covers only the Galactic plane, but with high angular resolution. Combining both provides excellent spatial dynamic range.