What a gorgeous and immense image! And it’s full of stars! An astronomer from Central Michigan University has put together a new high-resolution panoramic image of the full night sky , with the Milky Way galaxy as its centerpiece. Axel Mellinger stitched together over 3,000 images to create this beautiful image, which also comes in an interactive version, showing stars 1,000 times fainter than the human eye can see, as well as hundreds of galaxies, star clusters and nebulae.
View an interactive version at Mellinger’s website.
Mellinger spent 22 months and traveled over 26,000 miles to take digital photographs at dark sky locations in South Africa, Texas and Michigan. After the photographs were taken, “the real work started,” Mellinger said.
Simply cutting and pasting the images together into one big picture would not work. Each photograph is a two-dimensional projection of the celestial sphere. As such, each one contains distortions, in much the same way that flat maps of the round Earth are distorted. In order for the images to fit together seamlessly, those distortions had to be accounted for. To do that, Mellinger used a mathematical model—and hundreds of hours in front of a computer.
Another problem Mellinger had to deal with was the differing background light in each photograph.
“Due to artificial light pollution, natural air glow, as well as sunlight scattered by dust in our solar system, it is virtually impossible to take a wide-field astronomical photograph that has a perfectly uniform background,” Mellinger said.
To fix this, Mellinger used data from the Pioneer 10 and 11 space probes. The data allowed him to distinguish star light from unwanted background light. He could then edit out the varying background light in each photograph. That way they would fit together without looking patchy.
The result is an image of our home galaxy that no star-gazer could ever see from a single spot on earth. Mellinger plans to make the giant 648 megapixel image available to planetariums around the world.