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A stunning image of the Orion nebula has been released from the newly operational Wide Field Camera, part of the UK Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) in Hawaii. Built in Edinburgh, the camera is the most powerful infra-red survey camera anywhere in the world.

Belt up, OrionThe WFCAM will scan the skies for undiscovered objects. Its hunting grounds extend from the fringes of our solar system to the farthest reaches of the universe. Each exposure it takes can encompass an area of sky the size of the full moon - 1200 times as large as the UKIRT's previous camera.

Infra-red scans are important because they reveal objects too dim to be visible in the optical part of the spectrum, such as brown dwarfs, and because they can probe so far back in time to regions where other wavelengths of radiation have long-since faded.

The image of Orion was created by combining three exposures taken with different filters. This lends the image its colours, and also reveals clouds of matter that would otherwise be too dim to see. According to PPARC (Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council), the image reveals "not only the illuminated edges of clouds and filaments, but also thousands of young stars that are otherwise hidden from view at visible light wavelengths by the gas and dust".

"WFCAM will be used to do surveys of the infrared sky which will detect objects one hundred times fainter than those in the deepest existing surveys. [The survey] will take up to seven years to complete and will provide astronomers with a picture of the infra-red sky to unprecedented depth." said Dr Paul Hirst, WFCAM Instrument Scientist at UKIRT.

The camera is very large: it is a black cylinder 18 feet long, and weighing in at 1.7 tons. At its heart are four CD-case-sized detector arrays - conceptually similar to CCD chips in digital cameras - that use a mercury-cadmium-telluride crystal to detect infra-red light. Each time WFCAM maps an area of sky, it will generate an image of over 250 million pixels. In a single night of operation, scientists expect WFCAM will generate over 200GB of data about our universe. ®

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