NASA has released an interactive mosaic of infrared images of the Milky Way. It is the "clearest infrared panorama of our galactic home ever made," according to the voiceover in the video below.
The zoomable image is a composite of more than 2 million photos taken the by the Spitzer Space Telescope over the course of a decade. NASA imaging specialist Robert Hurt explained that "If we actually printed this out, we'd need a billboard as big as the Rose Bowl Stadium to display it." All of these images together still only make up three percent of our night sky, but because the Milky Way is shaped like a "stellar pancake," that small percentage still shows more than half of the stars in the Milky Way's disc.
The Galactic Legacy Mid-Plane Survey Extraordinaire project, GLIMPSE360 for short, allows viewers to see stars obstructed by interstellar dust, according to NASA:
Our galaxy is a flat spiral disk; our solar system sits in the outer one-third of the Milky Way, in one of its spiral arms. When we look toward the center of our galaxy, we see a crowded, dusty region jam-packed with stars. Visible-light telescopes cannot look as far into this region because the amount of dust increases with distance, blocking visible starlight. Infrared light, however, travels through the dust and allows Spitzer to view past the galaxy's center.
GLIMPSE team co-leader Ed Churchwell added that the digital project makes it easy for astronomers to scan the data collected by the telescope. "Spitzer is helping us determine where the edge of the galaxy lies. We are mapping the placement of the spiral arms and tracing the shape of the galaxy," he said. The project has allowed scientists to put together the most accurate map of the center of our galaxy so far.
According to a press release posted to the Spitzer space telescope website, researchers have already learned that the Milky Way is larger than we thought, that the galaxy is "riddled with bubbles" -- wind- and radiation-emitting cavities engulfing massive stars -- and more:
The data allow scientists to build a more global model of stars, and star formation in the galaxy -- what some call the "pulse" of the Milky Way. Spitzer can see faint stars in the "backcountry" of our galaxy -- the outer, darker regions that went largely unexplored before. "There are a whole lot more lower-mass stars seen now with Spitzer on a large scale, allowing for a grand study," said Barbara Whitney of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, co-leader of the GLIMPSE team. "Spitzer is sensitive enough to pick these up and light up the entire 'countryside' with star formation."
If you're as excited about this as we are, you can check out the panorama here.