MAGPI soars far back into the Cosmic Middle Ages

A group of young astronomers collaborating through the ARC Centre of Excellence for All Sky Astrophysics in 3 Dimensions (ASTRO 3D) has secured over 300 hours of observing time on the groundbreaking MUSE instrument on the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile. The MAGPI survey will help uncover how galaxies have evolved over cosmic time by observing 3D datacubes which will help them understand how clumpy, irregular structures transformed into today’s more common smooth elliptical galaxies.

Australian astronomers have secured one of the largest time allocations on the groundbreaking MUSE instrument at the Very Large Telescope to discover how galaxies have evolved over cosmic time.

A team of early-career astronomers as part of the ARC Centre of Excellence for All Sky Astrophysics in 3 Dimensions (ASTRO 3D) will observe the composition and motions in galaxies 4 billion light years away to better understand how the Universe’ galaxies evolved over time.

ASTRO 3D fellows Caroline Foster (University of Sydney), Claudia Lagos (the University of Western Australia, Trevor Mendel (Australian National University), Emily Wisnioski (The Australian National University) and Tiantian Yuan (Swinburne University of Technology) have secured over 300 hours on the MUSE instrument which uses the Very Large Telescope in Chile to see beyond the pretty pictures.

“Eight billion years ago, galaxies spun faster and appeared clumpier than their modern descendants,” Dr Foster said.

“The pathways that transformed them from clumpy and chaotic to the diverse range of organised systems we see today are an ongoing mystery.”

The European Southern Observatory recently announced that this group of young astronomers have been successful in their application to use the telescope for over 300 hours as part of the Middle Ages Galaxies Properties with Integral field spectroscopy (MAGPI) survey. The survey will double the distance of current similar 3D surveys of galaxies to catch galaxy transformation ‘in the act’.

Dr Lagos explains “by mapping the movement of gas and stars in hundreds of galaxies 4 billion light years away we can fill a gap in our understanding of how the Universe came to look like it does now.”

“The starlight in these galaxies is difficult to observe in detail, because they are very faint and in some cases hidden by their internal gas.”

These early-career astronomers are located throughout Australia as part of ASTRO 3D. They came together to create MAGPI, which cannot be performed at any other observatory in the world.

“We have been able to observe gas in very old, clumpy galaxies, and the stars in much closer galaxies, but this is the first time we can observe the composition and motions of both stars and gas in these middle-aged galaxies,” said Dr Wisnioski.

“This data will help us understand how clumpy, irregular structures transformed into today’s more smooth elliptical galaxies that are common today.”

The survey is named after the magpie – an easily identifiable native Australian bird, which has cousins in Europe. The magpie is an appropriate symbol for this emerging international collaboration.