Thursday, 29 March 2012

Milky Way image of one billion stars

Two sky surveys of the Milky Way led by Dr Phil Lucas from the School of Physics, Astronomy and Mathematics have been combined to show more than one billion stars in a near-infrared image.  British-built telescopes were used to take the images: the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) based in Hawaii covered the northern part of the Milky Way; and the VISTA telescope in Chile covered the southern part.

Detail of the star-forming area known as G305 in the Milky Way
This combined data on over a billion stars represents a scientific legacy that will be exploited for decades in many different ways. The image provides a three-dimensional view of the structure of our spiral galaxy - showing the plane of the Milky Way galaxy, which is often described as looking like two fried eggs back-to-back, with a bulge in the middle! Many structures of our spiral galaxy can be seen in the image, such as star clusters, gas and dust clouds where new stars are forming, and also stars all the way over on the far side of the galaxy.

The image has been published online with an interactive zoom tool. Zooming into the image reveals the wealth of detail on the small structures.

The UKIRT study (the UKIDSS Galactic Plane Survey) was led by the University of Hertfordshire, while the VISTA study (VISTA Variables in the Via Lactea, or VVV) was co-led by astronomers in Chile at the Pontifica Universidad Catolica and at the University of Hertfordshire. The picture itself was put together by the survey archive team at the University of Edinburgh.

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