Next-gen astronomical survey makes its first observations

A new understanding of the cosmos, as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey’s fifth generation collects its first observations.

The Sloan Digital Sky Survey’s fifth generation (SDSS-V) collected its very first observations of the cosmos on 24th October 2020. As the world’s first all-sky time-domain spectroscopic survey, SDSS-V will provide ground-breaking insight into the formation and evolution of galaxies—like our own Milky Way—and of the supermassive black holes that lurk at their centres.

The newly-launched SDSS-V will continue the path-breaking tradition set by the survey’s previous generations, with a focus on the ever-changing night sky and the physical processes that drive these changes, from flickers and flares of supermassive black holes to the back-and-forth shifts of stars being orbited by distant worlds.  SDSS-V will provide the spectroscopic backbone needed to achieve the full science potential of satellites like NASA’s TESS, ESA’s Gaia, and the latest all-sky X-ray mission, eROSITA.

SDSS-V is funded primarily by member institutions, along with grants from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the U.S. National Science Foundation, and the Heising-Simons Foundation. The University of Edinburgh is an Associate Member Institute in SDSS-V, funded by a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship that was recently awarded to Dr James Aird who is based at the Institute for Astronomy.

Dr James Aird reported:

I’m extremely excited by the opportunity to be involved in the SDSS-V survey, building on the University of Edinburgh’s involvement in previous generations of this important survey. 

Dr Aird is particularly looking forward to the data from the Black Hole Mapper programme. This programme will measure the masses and growth over cosmic time of the supermassive black holes that reside in the hearts of galaxies and will provide the first large-scale follow-up of X-ray sources identified with the eROSITA telescope, which launched just last year.

Reflecting on the Black Hole Mapper programme, Dr Aird added:

The SDSS-V programme will help reveal how these massive black holes are changing over a very broad range of timescales. This data will be vital to support my fellowship research on the impact of these black holes on the much longer lifecycles of the galaxies they lie in.

SDSS-V will operate out of both Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico, home of the survey’s original 2.5-meter telescope, and Carnegie’s Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, where it uses the 2.5-meter du Pont telescope. SDSS-V’s first observations were taken in New Mexico with existing SDSS instruments, in a necessary change of plans due to the pandemic. As laboratories and workshops around the world navigate safe reopening, SDSS-V’s own suite of new innovative hardware is on the horizon—in particular, systems of automated robots to aim the fibre optic cables used to collect the light from the night sky. These robots will be installed at both observatories over the next year.