Milky Way's infrared portrait gives new view of galaxy

Jun 03, 2008
Milky Way's infrared portrait gives new view of galaxy
More than 800,000 frames from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope were stitched together to create this infrared portrait of dust and stars radiating in the inner Milky Way. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Wisconsin

Humans have always had a ringside seat for viewing the Milky Way. Now, however, thanks to NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, astronomers have obtained an entirely new perspective of our home galaxy: a complete mosaic portrait of the Milky Way in infrared light, a picture that when printed measures 180 feet long by 4 feet wide.

The portrait, known as GLIMPSE (Galactic Legacy Infrared Midplane Survey Extraordinaire) and five years in the making, was unveiled for the first time in St. Louis today at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS).

The image is available at www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/spi… imedia/20080603.html

"Looking in infrared light, we can see right across the galaxy," says Edward Churchwell, a University of Wisconsin-Madison astronomer and the leader of the team that produced the portrait. "It looks entirely different than what we've seen before."

Looking at the galaxy in infrared light, especially the innermost regions of the Milky Way, allows astronomers to cut through enormous obscuring clouds of interstellar dust to reveal millions of previously hidden stars, nascent planetary systems and protostars, baby stars yet to light up through the process of hydrogen fusion.

In the process of compiling their survey, Churchwell's group has catalogued nearly 100 million stars and has started to peel away some of the mystery of how stars evolve and, in particular, the process of star formation in vast, previously obscured stellar nurseries where millions of new stars are churned out to continuously seed the galaxy.

The GLIMPSE survey, Churchwell argues, may be especially important in illuminating the earliest stages of star formation and the dynamics of the dark, dense clouds of dust and gas molecules where stars are born.

"These dark clouds are the birthing grounds of stars," Churchwell explains, pointing to dark, willowy filaments between brighter, hotter stars. "Nobody understands how star formation is initiated, but we do know a lot about the properties of the clouds. They are fairly massive and the reason we can see them is they are opaque, even at infrared wavelengths. That means they are very dense, have a lot of dust and are cold because they are not radiating."

Forty years ago, Churchwell notes, astrophysicists were convinced dust couldn't survive the rigors imposed by the very hot stars found in the stellar nursery: "It turns out dust can survive for several million years. It is much hardier than we thought. We're beginning to get a lot deeper insight into the impact of dust and it's giving us a very different view of what's going on in these regions. It is changing our ideas of size, ages and temperatures."

The poster mosaic unfurled today will be one of only a few hard copies produced, says Churchwell. One poster will soon be on display at the Griffith Observatory and Planetarium in Los Angeles. However, a digital version will also be available for use by museums and researchers, according to the Wisconsin astronomer. "

Source: University of Wisconsin

Explore further: What's the brightest star in the sky, past and future?

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Planck mission explores the history of the universe

Feb 06, 2015

Hot gas, dust and magnetic fields mingle in a colorful swirl in this new map of our Milky Way galaxy. The image is part of a new and improved data set from Planck, a European Space Agency mission in which ...

VISTA stares right through the Milky Way

Feb 04, 2015

A new image taken with ESO's VISTA survey telescope reveals the Trifid Nebula in a new light. By observing in infrared light, astronomers can see right through the central parts of the Milky Way and spot ...

An infrared atlas of interacting galaxies

Feb 02, 2015

Most galaxies, including our own Milky Way, have been influenced by an interaction with another galaxy at some time in their past. Interactions between galaxies can trigger an increase in star-formation activity ...

Recommended for you

Could the Milky Way become a quasar?

Feb 27, 2015

A quasar is what you get when a supermassive black hole is actively feeding on material at the core of a galaxy. The region around the black hole gets really hot and blasts out radiation that we can see billions ...

Galactic dinosaurs not extinct

Feb 27, 2015

One of the biggest mysteries in galaxy evolution is the fate of the compact massive galaxies that roamed the early Universe.

Stars found forming at Milky Way's outer edge

Feb 27, 2015

Brazilian astronomers said Friday they had found two star clusters forming in a remote part of our Milky Way galaxy where such a thing was previously thought impossible.

New insight found in black hole collisions

Feb 26, 2015

New research by an astrophysicist at The University of Texas at Dallas provides revelations about the most energetic event in the universe—the merging of two spinning, orbiting black holes into a much larger ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

maltman
not rated yet Jun 04, 2008
odd that there is a Chevrolet logo shape in the center of the image.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.