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Credit: Jeremy Sanders, Hermann Brunner and the eSASS team (MPE); Eugene Churazov, Marat Gilfanov (on behalf of IKI)

Even Superman's X-ray vision can't capture images like this six-month, all-sky shot of the cosmos

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Jul 11, 2020, 8:19 PM EDT (Updated)

The Last Son of Krypton might have enhanced vision capabilities to ferret out criminal activity and hidden weapons, but his X-ray-enabled super-peepers pale in comparison to a breathtaking new composite image of the cosmos.

The first all-sky X-ray radiation image of the universe was created by using eROSITA (Extended Roentgen Survey with an Imaging Telescope Array), a specialized seven-camera instrument on board the German-Russian satellite mission Spectrum-Röntgen-Gamma, or Spektr-RG.

To construct this sweeping new outer-space panorama, scientists enacted a full rotational scan of the entire sky over the span of approximately six months, searching for electromagnetic X-ray radiation sources, which include neutron stars, pulsars, black holes, galactic star clusters, and the telltale leftovers from massive supernova events.

Credit: Jeremy Sanders, Hermann Brunner and the eSASS team (MPE); Eugene Churazov, Marat Gilfanov (on behalf of IKI)

During its extended 182-day heavenly hunt from Dec. 13, 2019, to June 11, 2020, eROSITA located over a million signatures of X-ray radiation emanating from every corner of the cosmos. The majority of these transmissions were traced back to active galactic nuclei, or the brilliant, dense regions at the cores of galaxies. The team at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE) in Garching, Germany, recently announced that this basically doubles the previously recorded number of X-ray sources that have been catalogued in over six decades of X-ray astronomy.  

Galactic clusters of this magnitude are vital in scientists' understanding of how these complex masses of stars evolve and grow.

"This all-sky image completely changes the way we look at the energetic universe," explained Peter Predehl, MPE's Principal Investigator of eROSITA. "We see such a wealth of detail — the beauty of the images is really stunning."

eROSITA's stunning complete sky image is nearly 4 times deeper than the ROSAT telescope's all-sky survey performed back in 1990, and has generated 10 times more active EM sources, which represent the sum total discovered by all previous X-ray telescope undertakings. 

Credit: Jeremy Sanders, Hermann Brunner and the eSASS team (MPE); Eugene Churazov, Marat Gilfanov (on behalf of IKI)

"We were all eagerly awaiting the first all-sky map from eROSITA,” says Mara Salvato, an MPE scientist who spearheaded the task of combining eRosita's 165GB of data with other electromagnetic spectrum telescopes. “Large sky areas have already been covered at many other wavelengths, and now we have the X-ray data to match. We need these other surveys to identify the X-ray sources and understand their nature. eROSITA often sees unexpected bursts of X-rays from the sky. We need to alert ground-based telescopes immediately to understand what’s producing them.”

According to the official report, the SRG Observatory is now beginning its second all-sky survey, which should be finished by the end of 2020. Throughout the next 3.5 years, the ground team's mission calls for acquiring a total of seven incredibly detailed elliptical maps of the same nature as the mesmerizing images above, providing astronomers, cosmologists, and astrophysicists with a treasure of amazing material to pore over.

"With a million sources in just six months, eROSITA has already revolutionized X-ray astronomy, but this is just a taste of what's to come," adds Kirpal Nandra, head of MPE's high-energy astrophysics unit. "This combination of sky area and depth is transformational. We are already sampling a cosmological volume of the hot Universe much larger than has been possible before. Over the next few years, we'll be able to probe even further, out to where the first giant cosmic structures and supermassive black holes were forming."

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