Get the Big Picture of the Milky Way at the Adler Planetarium

Astronomy is all about getting the big picture of our place in the cosmos, but some pictures are bigger than others. This one is really big. The world’s largest image of our Milky Way galaxy went on display today at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. The image spans an area of 37 meters (120 feet) long by 1 meter (3 feet) wide at its sides, bulging to 2 meters (6 feet) to show the center of our humongous galaxy. The panorama represents 800,000 separate images taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope over a five-year period.

“This is the highest-resolution, largest, most sensitive infrared picture ever taken of our Milky Way,” said Sean Carey of NASA’s Spitzer Science Center, speaking when the image was unveiled in 2008 at the American Astronomical Society meeting in St. Louis (see our article and image of the unveiling). “Where previous surveys saw a single source of light, we now see a cluster of stars. With this data, we can learn how massive stars form, map galactic spiral arms and make a better estimate of our galaxy’s star-formation rate.”

Spitzer Survey image compiled.  Credit: NASA/JPL
Spitzer Survey image compiled. Credit: NASA/JPL

Data from Spitzer’s Infrared Array Camera (IRAC) and the Multiband Imaging Photometer were used to create the image.

If you want to download a very large version of this image (2400 x 3000) click here — warning: very big file.

From our vantage point on Earth, we see the Milky Way as a blurry, narrow band of light that stretches across the sky. In the visible, we only see about 5% of what’s actually out there. But with Spitzer’s dust-piercing infrared eyes, astronomers have peered 60,000 light-years away into this fuzzy band, called the galactic plane, and saw all the way to the other side of the galaxy.

The panorama reveals star formation as never seen before on both the large and small scale. Most of the star forming regions had not been seen before this project was undertaken.

I had the good fortune of seeing the image in St. Louis, and I highly recommend taking the opportunity to go see it at the Adler Planetarium if you are in Chicago. Here’s a video that explains how astronomers took the images and put them all together to form this gigantic panorama.

*Serendipitously, I am currently at the dotAstronomy conference where Eli Bressert from the Chandra X-Ray Center talked about the GLIMPSE Viewer. Here’s the link to see the Spitzer image with GLIMPSE (Galactic Legacy Infrared Midplane Extraordinaire).

Adler Planetarium is located at 1300 South Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, Ill., 60605. Phone: 312-922-7827. Adler Planetarium website. .

Infrared Spectroscopy

Infrared spectroscopy is spectroscopy in the infrared (IR) region of the electromagnetic spectrum. It is a vital part of infrared astronomy, just as it is in visual, or optical, astronomy (and has been since lines were discovered in the spectrum of the Sun, in 1802, though it was a couple of decades before Fraunhofer began to study them systematically).

For the most part, the techniques used in IR spectroscopy, in astronomy, are the same or very similar to those used in the visual waveband; confusingly, then, IR spectroscopy is part of both infrared astronomy and optical astronomy! These techniques involve use of mirrors, lenses, dispersive media such as prisms or gratings, and ‘quantum’ detectors (silicon-based CCDs in the visual waveband, HgCdTe – or InSb or PbSe – arrays in IR); at the long-wavelength end – where the IR overlaps with the submillimeter or terahertz region – there are somewhat different techniques.

As infrared astronomy has a much longer ground-based history than a space-based one, the terms used relate to the windows in the Earth’s atmosphere where lower absorption spectroscopy makes astronomy feasible … so there is the near-IR (NIR), from the end of the visual (~0.7 &#181m) to ~3 &#181m, the mid (to ~30 &#181m), and the far-IR (FIR, to 0.2 mm).

As with spectroscopy in the visual and UV wavebands, IR spectroscopy in astronomy involves detection of both absorption (mostly) and emission (rather less common) lines due to atomic transitions (the hydrogen Paschen, Brackett, Pfund, and Humphreys series are all in the IR, mostly NIR). However, lines and bands due to molecules are found in the spectra of nearly all objects, across the entire IR … and the reason why space-based observatories are needed to study water and carbon dioxide (to take just two examples) in astronomical objects. One of the most important class of molecules (of interest to astronomers) is PAHs – polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons – whose transitions are most prominent in the mid-IR (see the Spitzer webpage Understanding Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons for more details).

Looking for more info on how astronomers do IR spectroscopy? Caltech has a brief introduction to IR spectroscopy. The ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) has several dedicated instruments, including VISIR (which is both an imager and spectrometer, working in the mid-IR); CIRPASS, a NIR integrated field unit spectrograph on Gemini; Spitzer’s IRS (a mid-IR spectrograph); and LWS on the ESA’s Infrared Space Observatory (a FIR spectrometer).

Universe Today stories related to IR spectroscopy include Infrared Sensor Could Be Useful on Earth Too, Search for Origins Programs Shortlisted, and Jovian Moon Was Probably Captured.

Infrared spectroscopy is covered in the Astronomy Cast episode Infrared Astronomy.


Herschel Telescope Makes First Test Observations

The Herschel Telescope has given us a sneak preview of the infrared observational goodness we can expect from this new space telescope. The protective cryocover was taken off on June 14, and Herschel opened its ‘eyes,’ using the Photoconductor Array Camera and Spectrometer to take a few images of M51, ‘the whirlpool galaxy’ for a first test observation. The telescope obtained images in three colors from the observation, showing this largest of infrared space telescopes ever flown is functioning in fine form. Wonderful!

The above image shows the famous ‘whirlpool galaxy’, first observed by Charles Messier in 1773, who provided the designation Messier 51 (M51). This spiral galaxy lies relatively nearby, about 35 million light-years away, in the constellation Canes Venatici. M51 was the first galaxy discovered to harbor a spiral structure.

The image is a composite of three observations taken at 70, 100 and 160 microns, taken by Herschel’s Photoconductor Array Camera and Spectrometer (PACS) on June 14 and 15.

M51 seen by Spitzer (left) and Herschel (right). Credit: ESA
M51 seen by Spitzer (left) and Herschel (right). Credit: ESA

As a comparision, to the left is the best image of M51, taken by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, with the Multiband Imaging Photometer for Spitzer (MIPS), and on the right is Herschel’s observation at 160 microns. The obvious advantage of the larger size of the telescope is clearly reflected in the much higher resolution of the image: Herschel reveals structures that cannot be discerned in the Spitzer image.

And here is Herschel’s glimpse of M51 at 70, 100, 160 microns:

M51 Herschel image at 160, 100 and 70 microns: Credit:  ESA
M51 Herschel image at 160, 100 and 70 microns: Credit: ESA

So, the shorter the wavelength, the sharper the image, showing the quality of Herschel’s optics.

Thanks, Herschel for a wonderful sneak preview of great images to come!

Source: ESA