The National Science Foundation has awarded $600,000 in funding to an international team led by UCLA research astronomer R. Michael Rich and astronomers Catherine Pilachowski (Indiana University) and William Clarkson (University of Michigan, Dearborn) to use the world’s largest camera to map, from an observatory in Chile, the central bulge of the Milky Way.

During the three-year project, called the Blanco DECam Bulge Survey, the team will make a map -- in six colors that will span from ultraviolet to near-infrared light -- of the three-dimensional structure, orbital motions, stellar age and metal content of stars in the inner 3,000 light years of the Milky Way to gain new insights into its formation history.

The Milky Way’s central regions, said Rich, are “like a huge metropolitan area,” with the galaxy’s supermassive black hole at the center, and a host of “stellar suburbs” ranging in age from stars some 12 billion years old to only a few million years old. The survey may reveal a picture of how this region of our galaxy has formed and changed over time, he said.

The team will use a Dark Energy Camera (DECam), a 500-mega pixel digital camera that covers 3.8 square degrees of the sky, that is mounted on the Blanco 4-meter telescope at Cerro Tololo Observatory in Chile. The DECam is funded by the Department of Energy and NSF.

The final map will be 400 square degrees in size, covering all of the bright parts of the Milky Way seen toward Sagittarius. The images will be reduced using a supercomputer.

The survey and telescope are named after Victor M. Blanco, the first director of Cerro Tololo Observatory and a pioneer in the study of the galactic bulge.