NASA Unveils Stunning New Milky Way Portrait

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has provided an unprecedented infrared view of the Milky Way galaxy. This image represents a small portion of the 20-gigapixel mosaic available online. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Wisconsin

Talk about an out-of-this-world map! NASA has unveiled a stunning new clickable panoramic portrait of our home galaxy, the Milky Way.

The zoomable, 360-degree view was constructed from more than two million infrared snapshots taken over the past ten years by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope.

“If we actually printed this out, we’d need a billboard as big as the Rose Bowl Stadium to display it,” said Robert Hurt, an imaging specialist at NASA’s Spitzer Space Science Center in Pasadena, California.

“Instead, we’ve created a digital viewer that anyone, even astronomers, can use.”

Despite its 20-gigapixel size, the new map captures only about 3 percent of our sky. However, since the space telescope’s vision was focused for a total of 172 days along the thin disk of the Milky Way galaxy, it shows more than half of its stars. Most of the dusty, jam-packed star fields that we see in this mosaic appear crowded together along the central bar of stars that marks the downtown core of our galaxy.

Overall, the Milky Way resembles a common spiral galaxy, one that takes on a flattened disk shape, with our little solar system located in the outer third of one of its arms.

Take your own tour of the Milky Way online at http://www.spitzer.caltech.edu/glimpse360.

See for Yourself

Anyone under dark skies away from city lights can step outside on any clear night this time of the year and check out the beauty of the Milky Way for themselves.

This sky chart shows the Milky Way arch stretching across the western sky through some of the major winter constellations visible after nightfall at the end of March. Credit: Starry Night Software / A.Fazekas
This sky chart shows the Milky Way arch stretching across the western sky through some of the major winter constellations visible after nightfall at the end of March. Credit: Starry Night Software / A. Fazekas

Face toward the western sky and observe the ghostly glow of our galaxy, seen in the form of a faint arc of light stretching from the low northern horizon up high through the west. It then sweeps down through the south.

The entire path that the Milky Way follows in the heavens (which is in fact one of the spiral arms of our galaxy laid out before us) can be easily traced, because it plows right through some of the brightest wintertime constellations. They are now setting in the west in the Northern Hemisphere. For folks in the Southern Hemisphere, the Milky Way appears stretched out from the southeast to the west.

If you are stuck in the light-polluted suburbs, the Milky Way is pretty much invisible. However, with an average pair of binoculars, you can easily scan the sky and tour the vast numbers of clusters and streams of stars that make up the Milky Way. Just follow the bright constellation of stars such as Sirius, Betelgeuse, and Capella, which will act as your guideposts.

It is amazing to think that all the countless points of light that make up this starry band are actually millions of stars. Most of them are tens of thousands of light-years away from Earth, yet are part of the island of stars that we call our galactic home.

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Changing Planet

Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.