17 August 2013

9 gigapixels, 84 million stars: Peer into the world’s most detailed photo of the Milky Way

What you see here is the core of the Milky Way, as seen by the European Space Agency’s VISTA telescope. If you looked up at the center of the Milky Way with your naked eye, these stars and dust clouds would occupy a patch of space that’s just a few square inches. This is the most detailed photo ever of the Milky Way, enabling ESO astronomers to catalog no less than 84 million stars.

The image above is just a thumbnail, however. The source image has a resolution of 108,500×81,500, or 9 gigapixels, and is 24.6 gigabytes in size. To reach such an utterly crazy resolution, the VISTA telescope took thousands of photos of the sky, and then compiled them into this single, 9-gigapixel mosaic. VISTA, in case you were wondering, stands for Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy, and with a 4.1-meter mirror it is the largest visible and near-infrared survey telescope in the world. Put simply, this is the best view of the Milky Way ever (and yes, the full-res version is embedded at the end of this story).

This image doesn’t look like regular photos of the Milky Way because VISTA has an infrared camera, which can see through the dust clouds that usually obscure our view. In the side-by-side image below, you can see just how different the infrared view is (yes, it’s the same patch of sky, believe it or not).

The purpose of survey telescopes is to provide a large, general view of a wide swath of space, so that scientists and astronomers can identify objects that are worth investigating in more detail. In this case, there are some 84 million stars on display. To put this into perspective, though, the Hubble Extreme Deep Field shows around 5,500 galaxies — or 2.75 quadrillion stars…

If you can’t see the full-size, zoomable/pannable image embedded above, view it on the ESO website.

Now read: Hubble-discovers-first-blue-planet outside the solar system.


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