219 Million Stars Create the Most Detailed Catalogue of our Milky Way Yet

A density map of part of the Milky Way disk, constructed from IPHAS data. The axes show galactic latitude and longitude, coordinates that relate to the position of the centre of the galaxy. The mapped data are the counts of stars detected in i, the longer (redder) wavelength broad band of the survey, down to a faint limit of 19th magnitude. Although this is just a small section of the full map, it portrays in exquisite detail the complex patterns of obscuration due to interstellar dust. Credit: Hywel Farnhill, University of Hertfordshire.

On the darkest of nights, thousands of stars are sprinkled across the celestial sphere above us. Or, to be exact, there are 9,096 stars observable across the entire sky. Divide that number in half, and there are 4,548 stars (give or take a few) visible from horizon to horizon.

But this number excludes the glowing band stretching across the night sky, the Milky Way. It’s the disk of our own galaxy, a system stretching 100,000 light-years across. The naked eye is unable to distinguish individual specks of light, but the Isaac Newton Telescope (INT) on La Palma in the Canary Islands has recently charted 219 million separate stars in this disk alone.

For the last 10 years a team of astronomers led by Geert Barentsen from the University of Hertfordshire has been collecting and compiling light from all stars brighter than 20th magnitude, or one million times fainter than the human eye can see (at 6th magnitude).

They created a beautiful density map of the Milky Way, giving them new insight into the structure of this vast system. The black, fog-like regions are galactic dust, which blocks more distant light. The brighter regions are densely packed stars.

The INT took measurements in two broad filters, which captured light at the red end of the visible spectrum, and in one narrow filter, which captured light only from the hydrogen emission line, H-alpha. The inclusion of H-alpha enables exquisite mapping of nebulae, glowing clouds of hydrogen gas.

The production of the catalogue is an example of modern astronomy’s exploitation of “big data.” But it would also grace the walls of any art studio.