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

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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. .

Astronomers Dig Up Relic of the Milky Way’s Central Bulge

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Like archaeologists who dig through the layers of dirt to unearth crucial pieces of the history of mankind, astronomers have been gazing through the thick layers of interstellar dust obscuring the central bulge of the Milky Way and have unveiled an extraordinary cosmic relic. Within the bulge is an unusual mix of stars in the stellar grouping known as Terzan 5, and such a mix has never been observed anywhere in the bulge before. This peculiar conglomeration of stars suggests that Terzan 5 is one of the bulge’s primordial building blocks, most likely the relic of a dwarf galaxy that merged with the Milky Way during its very early days.

The new observations of Terzan 5 show that this object, unlike all but a few exceptional globular clusters, does not harbor stars which are all born at the same time — what astronomers call a “single population” of stars. Instead, the multitude of glowing stars in Terzan 5 formed in at least two different epochs, the earliest probably some 12 billion years ago and then again 6 billion years ago.

Dust around Terzan 5. Credit: ESO
Dust around Terzan 5. Credit: ESO

“Only one globular cluster with such a complex history of star formation has been observed in the halo of the Milky Way: Omega Centauri,” says team member Emanuele Dalessandro. “This is the first time we see this in the bulge.”

Using ESO’s Very Large Telescope, equipped with the Multi-conjugate Adaptive Optics Demonstrator (MAD), the astronomers were able to “disperse the fog” of the dust clouds in the central bulge to reveal the myriad of stars.

Through the sharp eye of the VLT, the astronomers also found that Terzan 5 is more massive than previously thought: along with the complex composition and troubled star formation history of the system, this suggests that it might be the surviving remnant of a disrupted dwarf galaxy, which merged with the Milky Way during its very early stages and thus contributed to form the galactic bulge.

The team hopes this is only the first in a series of discoveries on the origin of bulges in galaxies.

“The history of the Milky Way is encoded in its oldest fragments, globular clusters and other systems of stars that have witnessed the entire evolution of our galaxy,” says Francesco Ferraro, lead author of a paper appearing in this week’s issue of the journal Nature. “Our new study opens a new window on yet another piece of our galactic past.”

Source: ESO

1 Milky Way; 3,000 Images

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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.

Source: EurekAlert

Herschel Sees Hidden Stars in the Southern Cross

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Science observations have begun in earnest for the Herschel Space Telescope, and this spectacular image is the first produced by combining data from two cameras aboard Herschel, the Spectral and Photometric Imaging REceiver (SPIRE), and the Photoconductor Array Camera and Spectrometer (PACS). It shows a tumultuous region in the Southern Cross, visible only because the instruments are tuned to “see” in five different infrared wavelengths. Stunning vistas of cold gas clouds lying near the plane of the Milky Way reveal intense, unexpected activity. The dark, cool region is dotted with stellar factories, like pearls on a cosmic string.

Herschel, one of the largest telescopes in space, was launched in May. For this image, the two instruments were aimed at an area in the plane of the Milky Way about 60° from its center. It covers around 16 times the area of the Full Moon as seen in the sky.

The images were taken on September 3, 2009 during the first trial run with the two instruments working together. Herschel will go on to survey large areas of our galaxy.

Herschel SPIRE (left) and PACS images.  Credit:  ESA
Herschel SPIRE (left) and PACS images. Credit: ESA

The five original infrared wavelengths have been color-coded to allow scientists to differentiate extremely cold material (red) from the surrounding, slightly warmer stuff (blue).

The images reveal structure in cold material in our Galaxy, as we have never seen it before, and even before a detailed analysis, scientists have gleaned information on the quantity of the material, its mass, temperature, composition and whether it is collapsing to form new stars.

Beautiful evidence that our galaxy keeps giving birth to new generations of stars!

Source: ESA

New Chandra Deep X-ray Image of the Galactic Center

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Chandra has done it again in creating some of the most visually stunning images of our Universe. This time, Chandra’s X-ray eyes show a dramatic new vista of the center of the Milky Way galaxy. This mosaic from 88 different images exposes new levels of the complexity and intrigue in the Galactic center, providing a look at stellar evolution, from bright young stars to black holes, in a crowded, hostile environment dominated by a central, supermassive black hole.

Permeating the region is a diffuse haze of X-ray light from gas that has been heated to millions of degrees by winds from massive young stars – which appear to form more frequently here than elsewhere in the Galaxy – explosions of dying stars, and outflows powered by the supermassive black hole – known as Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*). Data from Chandra and other X-ray telescopes suggest that giant X-ray flares from this black hole occurred about 50 and about 300 years earlier.

See this link for an animation that provides greater detail of the galactic center.

The area around Sgr A* also contains several mysterious X-ray filaments. Some of these likely represent huge magnetic structures interacting with streams of very energetic electrons produced by rapidly spinning neutron stars or perhaps by a gigantic analog of a solar flare.

Scattered throughout the region are thousands of point-like X-ray sources. These are produced by normal stars feeding material onto the compact, dense remains of stars that have reached the end of their evolutionary trail – white dwarfs, neutron stars and black holes.

Because X-rays penetrate the gas and dust that blocks optical light coming from the center of the galaxy, Chandra is a powerful tool for studying the Galactic Center. This image combines low energy X-rays (colored red), intermediate energy X-rays (green) and high energy X-rays (blue).

The image is being released at the beginning of the “Chandra’s First Decade of Discovery” symposium being held in Boston, Mass. This four-day conference will celebrate the great science Chandra has uncovered in its first ten years of operations. To help commemorate this event, several of the astronauts who were onboard the Space Shuttle Columbia – including Commander Eileen Collins – that launched Chandra on July 23, 1999, will be in attendance.

Source: Chandra

Milky Way Galaxy Pictures

Here are some beautiful pics of the Milky Way Galaxy. It’s important to remember that we live inside the Milky Way Galaxy, so there’s no way to show a true photograph of what the Milky Way looks like. We can see pictures of the Milky Way from inside it, or see artist illustrations of what the Milky Way might look like from outside.

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This Milky Way Galaxy picture shows what our galaxy would look like from above. You can see its spiral arms, dense core and the thin halo. The Milky Way is a common barred spiral galaxy. There are billions more just like it in the Universe.


Milky Way in infrared. Image credit: COBE
Milky Way in infrared. Image credit: COBE

This picture of the Milky Way was captured by NASA’s COBE satellite. This photograph was taken using the infrared spectrum, which allows astronomers to peer through the gas and dust that normally obscures the center of the Milky Way.


The plane of the Milky Way, recorded with the Chandra satellite in three colours: Photons with energies between 0.5 and 1keV appear red, those between 1 and 3keV green, and those between 3 and 7keV blue. Discrete sources are indicated by circles.  Image: Mikhail Revnivtsev
The plane of the Milky Way, recorded with the Chandra satellite in three colours: Photons with energies between 0.5 and 1keV appear red, those between 1 and 3keV green, and those between 3 and 7keV blue. Discrete sources are indicated by circles. Image: Mikhail Revnivtsev

This image of the Milky Way Galaxy was taken with the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, which can see in the X-Ray spectrum. In this view, only high energy emissions are visible, such as the radiation emitted from black holes and other high energy objects.


Artist's concept shows young, blue stars encircling a supermassive black hole at the core of a spiral galaxy like the Milky Way.Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Schaller (for STScI)
Artist's concept shows young, blue stars encircling a supermassive black hole at the core of a spiral galaxy like the Milky Way.Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Schaller (for STScI)

Here’s an artist’s impression of what a galaxy like the Milky Way might have looked like early in its history. This image shows a supermassive black hole with young blue stars circling it.


Milky_Way_infrared_mosaic.  Credit:  Spitzer Space Telescope
Milky_Way_infrared_mosaic. Credit: Spitzer Space Telescope

This is a mosaic image of the Milky Way captured by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. It was built up by several photographs taken by Spitzer, which sees in the infrared spectrum, and can peer through obscuring dust.

Fate of the Universe

[/caption]What is the ultimate fate of our universe? A Big Crunch? A Big Freeze? A Big Rip? or a Big Bounce? Measurements made by WMAP or the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe favor a Big Freeze. But until a deeper understanding of dark energy is established, the other three still cannot be totally ignored.

Ever since scientists proved the Big Bang to be the most plausible cosmological theory, and since it only focused more on how it might have all began, their attention started to shift to how the Universe would end. Thus, all 4 theories mentioned above (Big Crunch, Big Freeze, etc.) are actually offshoots of the Big Bang.

The Big Crunch predicts that, after having expanded to its maximum size, the Universe will finally collapse into itself to form the greatest black hole ever.

On the opposite side of the coin, the Big Freeze foretells of a universe that will continue to stretch forever, distributing heat evenly in the process until none is left to be usable enough. Hence, it is also known as the Heat Death.

A more dramatic version of the Big Freeze is the Big Rip. In this scenario, the Universe’s rate of expansion will increase substantially so that everything in it, down to the smallest atom, will be ripped apart.

In a cyclic or oscillatory model of the Universe, there will be no end … for matter and energy, that is. But for us and the Universe that we know of, there will definitely be a conclusion. In an oscillatory model, the Big Bang and Big Crunch form a pair known as the Big Bounce. Essentially, such a universe would simply expand and contract (or bounce) forever.

For astronomers to determine what the ultimate fate of the Universe should be, they would need to know certain information. Its density is supposedly one of the most telling.

You see, if its density is found to be less than the critical density, then only a Big Freeze or a Big Rip would be possible. On the other hand, if it is greater than the said critical value, then a Big Crunch or Big Bounce would most likely ensue.

The most accurate measurements on the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR), which is also the most persuasive evidence of the Big Bang, shows a universe having a density virtually equal to the critical density. The measurements also exhibit the characteristics of a flat universe. Right now, it looks like all gathered data indicate that a Big Crunch or a Big Bounce is highly unlikely to occur.

To render finality to these findings however, scientists will need to know the exact behavior of dark energy. Is its strength increasing? Is it diminishing? Is it constant? Only by answering these will they know the ultimate fate of the Universe.

We’ve got a few articles that touch on the fate the universe here in Universe Today. Here are two of them:

NASA also has some more:

Tired eyes? Let your ears help you learn for a change. Here are some episodes from Astronomy Cast that just might suit your taste:

Sources: NASA, Hubblesite

Center of the Universe

Where is the center of the Universe? One of the confusing aspects of the whole Big Bang idea is the notion that the Universe doesn’t have a center. You see, if we associate the Big Bang with just about any typical explosion, then we can be tempted to pinpoint the source of the explosion to be the center.

For example, if a firecracker explodes and we take a snapshot of it, then the outermost debris would mark the boundaries of the whole explosion. Looking at the directions of each debris, whether outermost or not, would give us an idea as to where the explosion first started and, subsequently, the center.

Furthermore, if there was a point of origin (the center) of the Big Bang similar to typical explosions, then that point and all regions near it would be comparatively warmer than all others. That is, as you move further from the center of a typical explosion, you would expect to measure cooler temperatures.

However, when scientists point their detectors to all directions, the readings they obtain indicate that the Universe, in general, is homogeneous. No large region is relatively warmer than the rest. Of course, each star is hotter than the regions away from it.

But if we look at many galaxies, and thus including the stars that comprise them, a homogeneous overall picture is painted. If that were so, then that center or point of origin of the explosion cannot exist.

The favorite analogy used by lecturers to simplify the concept of a universe having no center is that of the behavior of dots on the surface of an expanding balloon; for as we know, the Universe is expanding. If we imagine the dots to be galaxies, we can visualize the Universe’s expansion by observing how the dots are brought away from one another as air is slowly blown into the balloon.

For us to get a near accurate analogy, it is important that the observation be limited to the surface alone. If we try to interpret the expansion as being manifested by the whole balloon, we will be tempted into interpreting the geometric center of the balloon as the center of the expanding Universe.

Going back, if we just focus on the surface, you’ll notice that each and every dot will drift farther away from adjacent ones and that no single dot will appear as the center. Also, if you picture yourself as an ant at the center of a single dot, all the other dots will move away from you as if you were the center, just like in our universe.

We’ve got a few articles that touch on the center of the universe here in Universe Today. Here are two of them:

NASA also has some more:

Tired eyes? Let your ears help you learn for a change. Here are some episodes from Astronomy Cast that just might suit your taste:

Source: NASA Spitzer

The Milky Way Could have Billions of Earths

With the upcoming launch in March of the Kepler mission to find extrasolar planets, there is quite a lot of buzz about the possibility of finding habitable planets outside of our Solar System. Kepler will be the first satellite telescope with the capability to find Earth-size and smaller planets. At the most recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Chicago, Dr. Alan Boss is quoted by numerous media outlets as saying that there could be billions of Earth-like planets in the Milky Way alone, and that we may find an Earth-like planet orbiting a large proportion of the stars in the Universe.

“There are something like a few dozen solar-type stars within something like 30 light years of the sun, and I would think that a good number of those — perhaps half of them would have Earth-like planets. So, I think there’s a very good chance that we’ll find some Earth-like planets within 10, 20, or 30 light years of the Sun,” Dr. Boss said in an AAAS podcast interview.

Dr. Boss is an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution of Washington Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, and is the author of The Crowded Universe, a book on the likelihood of finding life and habitable planets outside of our Solar System.

“Not only are they probably habitable but they probably are also going to be inhabited. But I think that most likely the nearby ‘Earths’ are going to be inhabited with things which are perhaps more common to what Earth was like three or four billion years ago,” Dr. Boss told the BBC. In other words, it’s more likely that bacteria-like lifeforms abound, rather than more advanced alien life.

This sort of postulation about the existence of extraterrestrial life (and intelligence) falls under the paradigm of the Drake Equation, named after the astronomer Frank Drake. The Drake Equation incorporates all of the variables one should take into account when trying to calculate the number of technologically advanced civilizations elsewhere in the Universe. Depending on what numbers you put into the equation, the answer ranges from zero to trillions. There is wide speculation about the existence of life elsewhere in the Universe.

To date, the closest thing to an Earth-sized planet discovered outside of our Solar System is CoRoT-Exo-7b, with a diameter of less than twice that of the Earth.

The speculation by Dr. Boss and others will be put to the test later this year when the Kepler satellite gets up and running. Set to launch on March 9th, 2009, the Kepler mission will utilize a 0.95 meter telescope to view one section of the sky containing over 100,000 stars for the entirety of the mission, which will last at least 3.5 years.

The prospect of life existing elsewhere is exciting, to be sure, and we’ll be keeping you posted here on Universe Today when any of the potentially billions of Earth-like planets are discovered!

Source: BBC, EurekAlert

How Many Stars are There in the Milky Way?

When you look up into the night sky, it seems like you can see a lot of stars. There are about 2,500 stars visible to the naked eye at any one point in time on the Earth, and 5,800-8,000 total visible stars (i.e. that can be spotted with the aid of binoculars or a telescope). But this is a very tiny fraction of the stars the Milky Way is thought to have!

So the question is, then, exactly how many stars are in the Milky Way Galaxy? Astronomers estimate that there are 100 billion to 400 billion stars contained within our galaxy, though some estimate claim there may be as many as a trillion. The reason for the disparity is because we have a hard time viewing the galaxy, and there’s only so many stars we can be sure are there.

Structure of the Milky Way:

Why can we only see so few of these stars? Well, for starters, our Solar System is located within the disk of the Milky Way, which is a barred spiral galaxy approximately 100,000 light years across. In addition, we are about 30,000 light years from the galactic center, which means there is a lot of distance – and a LOT of stars – between us and the other side of the galaxy.

The Milky Way Galaxy. Astronomer Michael Hart, and cosmologist Frank Tipler propose that extraterrestrials would colonize every available planet. Since they aren't here, they have proposed that extraterrestrials don't exist. Sagan was able to imagine a broader range of possibilities. Credit: NASA
Artist’s impression of the Milky Way Galaxy. Credit: NASA

To complicate matter further, when astronomers look out at all of these stars, even closer ones that are relatively bright can be washed out by the light of brighter stars behind them. And then there are the faint stars that are at a significant distance from us, but which elude conventional detection because their light source is drowned out by brighter stars or star clusters in their vicinity.

The furthest stars that you can see with your naked eye (with a couple of exceptions) are about 1000 light years away. There are quite a few bright stars in the Milky Way, but clouds of dust and gas – especially those that lie at the galactic center – block visible light. This cloud, which appears as a dim glowing band arching across the night sky – is where our galaxy gets the “milky” in its name from.

It is also the reason why we can only really see the stars in our vicinity, and why those on the other side of the galaxy are hidden from us. To put it all in perspective, imagine you are standing in a very large, very crowded room, and are stuck in the far corner. If someone were to ask you, “how many people are there in here?”, you would have a hard time giving them an accurate figure.

Now imagine that someone brings in a smoke machine and begins filling the center of the room with a thick haze. Not only does it become difficult to see clearly more than a few meters in front of you, but objects on the other side of the room are entirely obscured. Basically, your inability to rise above the crowd and count heads means that you are stuck either making guesses, or estimating based on those that you can see.

a mosaic of the images covering the entire sky as observed by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), part of its All-Sky Data Release.
A mosaic of the images covering the entire sky as observed by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), part of its All-Sky Data Release. Credit: NASA/JPL

Imaging Methods:

Infrared (heat-sensitive) cameras like the Cosmic Background Explorer (aka. COBE) can see through the gas and dust because infrared light travels through it. And there’s also the Spitzer Space Telescope, an infrared space observatory launched by NASA in 2003; the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), deployed in 2009; and the Herschel Space Observatory, a European Space Agency mission with important NASA participation.

All of these telescopes have been deployed over the past few years for the purpose of examining the universe in the infrared wavelength, so that astronomers will be able to detect stars that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. To give you a sense of what this might look like, check out the infrared image below, which was taken by COBE on Jan. 30th, 2000.

However, given that we still can’t seem them all, astronomers are forced to calculate the likely number of stars in the Milky Way based on a number of observable phenomena. They begin by observing the orbit of stars in the Milky Way’s disk to obtain the orbital velocity and rotational period of the Milky Way itself.

Estimates:

From what they have observed, astronomers have estimated that the galaxy’s rotational period (i.e. how long it takes to complete a single rotation) is apparently 225-250 million years at the position of the Sun. This means that the Milky Way as a whole is moving at a velocity of approximately 600 km per second, with respect to extragalactic frames of reference.

"This dazzling infrared image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows hundreds of thousands of stars crowded into the swirling core of our spiral Milky Way galaxy. In visible-light pictures, this region cannot be seen at all because dust lying between Earth and the galactic center blocks our view. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Infrared image of the Milky Way taken by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Then, after determining the mass (and subtracting out the halo of dark matter that makes up over 90% of the mass of the Milky Way), astronomers use surveys of the masses and types of stars in the galaxy to come up with an average mass. From all of this, they have obtained the estimate of 200-400 billion stars, though (as stated already) some believe there’s more.

Someday, our imaging techniques may become sophisticated enough that are able to spot every single star through the dust and particles that permeate our galaxy. Or perhaps will be able to send out space probes that will be able to take pictures of the Milky Way from Galactic north – i.e. the spot directly above the center of the Milky Way.

Until that time, estimates and a great deal of math are our only recourse for knowing exactly how crowded our local neighborhood is!

We have written many great articles on the Milky Way here at Universe Today. For example, here are 10 Facts About the Milky Way, as well as articles that answer other important questions.

These include How Big Is The Milky Way?, What is the Milky Way?, and Why Is Our Galaxy Called the Milky Way?

Astronomy Cast did a podcast all about the Milky Way, and the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) have plenty of information about the Milky Way here.

And if you’re up for counting a few of the stars, check out this mosaic from NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day. For a more in-depth explanation on the subject, go to How the Milky Way Galaxy Works.