A collection of remote quasars, whose positions in the sky are precisely known, form a map of celestial landmarks ideal to orient the Earth. The first such map, called the International Celestial Reference Frame (ICRF), was completed in 1995. It was made over four years using painstaking analysis of observations on the positions of about 600 of these celestial beacons.
Quasars, which are typically brighter than a billion suns, can be used. Many scientists believe these objects are powered by giant black holes feeding on nearby gas. Gas trapped in the black hole's powerful gravity is compressed and heated to millions of degrees, giving off intense light and/or radio energy.Most quasars lurk in the outer reaches of the cosmos, over a billion light years away, and are therefore distant enough to appear stationary to us. For comparison, a light year, the distance light travels in a year, is almost six trillion miles. Our entire galaxy, consisting of hundreds of billions of stars, is about 100,000 light years across.
Ma led a three-year effort to update and improve the precision of the ICRF map by scientists affiliated with the International Very Long Baseline Interferometry Service for Geodesy and Astrometry (IVS) and the International Astronomical Union (IAU). Called ICRF2, it uses observations of approximately 3,000 quasars. It was officially recognized as the fundamental reference system for astronomy by the IAU in August, 2009.
The ICRF maps are not only useful for navigation on Earth; they also help us find our way in space -- the ICRF grid and some of the objects themselves are used to assist spacecraft navigation for interplanetary missions, according to Ma.
Despite its usefulness for things like GPS, the primary application for the ICRF maps is astronomy. Researchers use the ICRF maps as driving directions for telescopes. Objects are referenced with coordinates derived from the ICRF so that astronomers know where to find them in the sky.
Astronomers also use the frame as a backdrop to record the motion of celestial objects closer to us. Tracing how stars and other objects move provides clues to their origin and evolution.
The next update to the ICRF may be done in space. The European Space Agency plans to launch a satellite called Gaia in 2012 that will observe about a half-million quasars.
Gaia uses an optical telescope, but because it is above the atmosphere, the satellite will be able to clearly see these faint objects and precisely locate them in the sky. The mission will use quasars that are optically bright, many of which are too dim in radio to be useful for the VLBI networks.
The project expects to have enough observations by 2018 to 2020 to produce the next-generation ICRF.
Source: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center
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