Earlier this week yours truly went giddy about news of a picture of deep space, peering through an intervening gauze of our own galaxy's scattered stars to behold the tapestry of more such island universes far beyond, speckled everywhere. Ditto for a NASA animation of oceanic surface currents, squirming across our spinning globe like marching, twisting masses of wriggling blue and white doodles. Now, we have the billion-star galaxy, our own Milky Way and from some of the same people that gave us a view beyond it of galaxies on end. I know these stories are not huge news, nor do they have much meaning outside themselves. But I'm a sucker for them.
This one, of our Milky Way, does not have as much immediate wow factor as the other two. That's because the big picture raw image is just a mottled and dim image of the Milky Way somewhat as astro photo fans have gazed upon many times but with a choppy margin and with its interior marred by big black rectangles where data are still under process (I dutifully deign to the NYTimes's decision, thank you Ken Chang, that data can be singular. But nobody can make me do it myself unless they're my editors and I don't have one of those here). It looks cluttered and dull.
However, the wow comes by punching the + magnification button after centering any spot of the image on your screen. It just keeps getting bigger and sporting more stars the deeper one goes. To the right is one of my own random samplings. Does it seem to you to have a notable number of arcuate dust lanes and strings of stars? Anyway, combine this seemingly bottomless pot of stars in our own galaxy, with memory of the similar image of the galaxies beyond, and one is slapped silly by the reminder we occupy an incomprehensibly big cosmos. Jeez, I hope we're sharing this with something else out there and conscious. Plus, one must remember that the image just shows a billion stars bright enough, and not behind interstellar clouds, for the telescopes to pick them up. It's only about one percent of the galaxy's stellar population.
A University of Edinburgh man presented the image a meeting in Manchester, England yesterday. It's the result of ten years work by an international team combining images from the UK's Infrared Telescope in Hawaii with others by the European Southern Observatory's VISTA telescope in Chile.
A link to the zoomable image is down there in Grist. Immediately below is the underwhelming full-pan pic.
A few outlets picked it up:
- BBC - Jonathan Amos: Picture captures a billion stars ;
- Scientific American: Kelly Oakes: One billion stars (and a huge amount of data) ; She admits, savvily, to the impotence of media in easily presenting the topic, writing "The truth is that no computer screen could ever really do it justice. But here we go anyway..."
- Daily Mail - Jill Reilly: Far out: A spectacular snap of one billion stars in the Milky Way, which took astronomers 10 years to create;
- Space.com: New Milky Way Photo Captures 1 Billion Stars ;
- Charlie Petit