The saying goes that a picture is worth a thousand words, but in this case it’s worth 219 million.
Astronomers recently released the most detailed catalogue of our home galaxy, the Milky Way. In it, they resolved and charted the locations of 219 million stars throughout the galaxy’s most populous region, the disk, providing researchers a map of the Milky Way’s structure in unprecedented detail.
Like looking at a Frisbee edge on so all you see is the thin ridge, our view of the Milky Way’s disk is also edge on. This means that in order to study the Milky Way, astronomers must create a picture from the inside out, which can be a tricky business.
The galactic disk is the bright band stretching across the sky and is where most of the stars in our galaxy are located. By mapping the stars, gas and dust within the galactic disk, astronomers can gain a better understanding of the most active and dense regions of the Milky Way.
For the last ten years, a team of scientists led by Geert Barentsen of the University of Hertfordshire have been doing just that. They collected and compiled light from 219 million stars as dim as one million times fainter than the human eye can detect. For this, they used the Isaac Newton Telescope in the Canary Islands.
The image below is a snapshot of a small part of the sky they made from a portion of catalogue’s data.
The black, fog-like region is highly-resolved galactic dust that obscures our view. The bright regions are of stellar density, meaning the brighter the region, the more stars that are packed into an area — like sardines in a can.
Maps of stellar density are one of the best ways astronomers can gain a better idea of the structure of our galaxy without hopping on a spaceship and travelling thousands of light years to take a picture from outside the galaxy.
The catalogue of data the team of scientists produced is part of a survey programme called the Isaac Newton Telescope Photometric H-alpha Survey of the Northern Galactic Plane, or IPHAS. IPHAS is one example of what modern astronomer’s can do with big data.
Other results from IPHAS have so far included a three-dimensional map of dust distribution throughout the galactic disk and the discovery of 159 new planetary nebulae.
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