Press Release

AFRL Scientists Map the Galactic Plane

By SpaceRef Editor
November 9, 1999
Filed under

Air Force Research Laboratory Public Affairs

CONTACT: John Brownlee/Connie Rankin

PHONE: (505) 853-3515; DSN 263-3515

VS RELEASE NO. 99-18 November 9, 1999


HANSCOM AFB, MASS. — New and unexplored territory is surveyed to map its features, and as society has progressed, we have less unexplored
territory with more city maps, geological maps, and nautical charts for general and specific information about our earthly environment.
Scientists at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) Space Vehicles Directorate at Hanscom AFB, Mass., have created new maps, but these are
heavenly: They are the first high-resolution map of the entire Galactic plane. The maps provide specific information about the Galactic structure
and dramatically improve our knowledge of the space environment and its components.

In the near future, NASA will be using these maps for scientific analysis and to support their next “Great Observatory” mission, the Space
Infrared Telescopic Facility (SIRTF), which will be launched in 2001. SIRTF will use AFRL’s Galactic plane maps to direct their observatory to
specific objects in order to study even finer details.

“The resolution and sensitivity of the MSX maps make them a perfect complement to the low-resolution all-sky infrared survey conducted by the
Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS) in the early 80s. But, the MSX maps provide more detailed but limited area observations of space
observatories such as the Infrared Space Observatory (now defunct) and SIRTF,” said Dr. Stephan Price, Principal Investigator for MSX Celestial
Background experiments. The large detector size available to IRAS limited the resolution of the instrument in regions of high source density, such
as the Galactic plane. The modern detector arrays flown by MSX were 35 times better in spatial resolution, allowing the high source density and
complex dust emission in the Galactic plane to be accurately mapped. This level of detail was needed by Air Force systems to differentiate
background characteristics from potential targets. Infrared wavelengths are important for target detection because an adversary can easily hide
objects in space from optical sensors, but it is very difficult to hide the targets’ infrared emissions.

In 1996-1997, the Midcourse Space Experiment (MSX) flew into space and looked at 15% of the sky, including the entire Galactic plane and the
4% of the sky that had been missed by the IRAS survey. Using higher infrared resolution and greater sensitivity than IRAS, AFRL scientists used
the MSX data to study the Galactic plane and its emissions in star forming regions, molecular clouds, and the diffuse interstellar medium. For Air
Force use, maps of the infrared stars and extended structures were created to study the ability of a system to detect a target in very cluttered

The AFRL team has replaced IRAS’s outdated and blurry picture of the infrared Galactic plane with new, sharp, multi-wavelength images. In
conjunction with future missions, MSX data will help identify young planetary systems, clouds which are about to form the newest and most
massive stars in our Galaxy, and shells, bubbles, and filaments caused by the interaction of stars with the interstellar medium. MSX was launched
for military purposes, to determine what was where. Figuring out why things look the way they do transformed the research from military to
scientific purposes.

The AFRL/Space Vehicles Directorate is headquartered at Kirtland AFB, N.M., with a major component at Hanscom AFB. AFRL’s mission is to
“discover, develop, and deliver technologies that keep our country and its defense the best in the world.”

SpaceRef staff editor.