A milky panorama

On a clear night you can see a band of diffuse light stretching across the sky that is the plane of the Milky Way. However, embedded within it as we are, it is difficult to get a sense of perspective when it comes to the galaxy as a whole. A panoramic image covering the entire celestial sphere recently published by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) now reveals the cosmic landscape surrounding our planet.

The Milky Way, as visualised by the GigaGalaxy Zoom project

ESO’s GigaGalaxy Zoom project features a web tool that allows users to dive into the Milky Way from the comfort of their living room sofas, and learn much about our galaxy’s features by simply pointing and clicking. As an educational astronomy tool it is quite outstanding. With GigaGalaxy Zoom users can learn about celestial objects such as nebulae and exploding stars, and reveal the hidden cosmos. The images are assembled from optical data gathered by telescopes at ESO’s high-altitude sites in Chile.

The overview image shown here makes it seem as if we are looking at the galaxy from outside. Clearly visible is the central disk, marbled with both dark and glowing nebulae. You can also see a number of the Milky Way’s satellite galaxies, including the small and large Magellanic Clouds, below and to the right of the central bulge.

The GigaGalaxy Zoom images are the result of a collaboration between ESO and astro-photographers Serge Brunier and Frédéric Tapissier.

“I wanted to show a sky that everyone can relate to — with its constellations, its thousands of stars, with names familiar since childhood, its myths shared by all civilisations since Homo became Sapiens,” says Brunier. “The image was therefore made as man sees it, with a regular digital camera under the dark skies in the Atacama Desert and on La Palma.”

Check out the GigaGalaxy Zoom website, but give yourself time to linger and be amazed.