Incredible all-sky picture

By Phil Plait | October 25, 2010 7:00 am

The amazingly talented astrophotographer Stéphane Guisard has done it again! Check out this amazing 360° view of the entire sky:


[Click the picture to 2 π steradianate and get access to a zoomable, panable image.]

There’s so much going on here it’s hard to know where to start. Basically, Stéphane wanted to get the darkest sky possible for this shot. So he went to the Atacama desert in Chile, not far from the Paranal observatory. At that latitude, and at that time of year, the Milky Way — usually seen as a band of light across the sky — circles the horizon! That glow you see around the picture is not from cities or anything else like that, it’s from the galaxy itself.

Since the Milky Way is so low in the sky, its soft light is minimized. He also took this picture at new Moon, so there was no light from that, either. Zodiacal light is sunlight reflected back to Earth from dust in the plane of the solar system, and he chose the time of the picture to minimize that as well.

The glow you can see in the picture is called gegenschein, and is sunlight reflected back to Earth from particles in the solar system, but this light is more concentrated in the area of the sky directly opposite the Sun’s position. That’s why it appears so bright in that oval, and fades away to the sides.

What Stéphane has essentially achieved here is a picture with the darkest sky possible.

Pretty cool.

And the picture itself is filled with amazing sights! Here’s an unwrapped version showing the entire horizon (this is on the page linked above in much higher res as well):


On the far left you can see the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, satellite galaxies of our Milky Way. To the far right is the constellation of Orion, surrounded by the red glow of Barnard’s Loop, a shell of hydrogen gas blown out by the hot, massive, luminous stars in Orion. You can also see the Andromeda Galaxy, and countless other objects too. He has an annotated version on that page which will help you find your way around.

Oh, and that brilliant star in the middle? That’s no star, that’s Jupiter. Please don’t report it as a UFO.

This is an incredibly beautiful and clever image. I never would’ve though of something like this myself, but seeing the Milky Way wrapped around the horizon like that is an astonishing thing, even to an experienced skyhound like me. It just goes to show you that no matter how much time you spend enjoying the heavens, there’s always more to see and new ways to see it.

Related posts:

The lines in the sky are stars
Top Ten Astronomy Pictures of 2009 (#9)<br

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (48)

  1. Grand Lunar

    I never knew the Milky Way would appear in this manner anywhere on Earth.

  2. Bjoern

    Excuse me, but in the sentence “At that latitude, and at that time of year, the Milky Way — usually seen as a band of light across the sky — circles the horizon!”, don’t you also have to include “and at that time of the night”? Don’t the stars in the Milky Way rise and set during the night…?

  3. That photo shows you a little bit more into the vastness of space by the number of stars you can see. Absolutely unreal!

  4. Themos Tsikas

    Stephane is an inspiration to all of us!

  5. noen

    Do people make HDR 360 maps of the night time sky? Where might I find one?

  6. Daniel J. Andrews

    There’s a little 30 second time-lapse video here ( of sky and water. It is called “water dance” but I found the night sky much more captivating than the water. Gorgeous sky, Milky Way very clear.

  7. I was going to stop by the Atacama Desert this weekend too but…yanno…..had some things to do around the house. Had to run to Target. Get some cat litter and a 12-pack of Diet Coke. (Was all out.)

    Maybe next week. 😛

  8. Messier Tidy Upper

    Stunning image. :-)

    Thankyou to Stéphane Guisard, merci beaucoup!
    Merci to the BA also for sharing this with us all. :-)

    Gee, the Magellanic clouds sure show up well don’t they? 😉
    (& the LMC looks clearly like a barred spiral too.)

  9. flash

    Oh my god… It’s full of stars…

  10. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ flash .. & quite a few galaxies, nebulae and dust (interstellar & interplanetary) too! 😉

  11. Pete Jackson

    Incredible photograph!

    It would be nice if labels for galactic longitude, l, could be added along the circumference, but from

    I estimate that the left hand side has l = 300; the bottom has l = 30, the right hand side has l = 120 and the top has l = 210. The center of the image, of course, is at galactic latitude, b = -90. The central bulge of our galaxy can be seen at l = 0 along the lower left edge.

  12. Jon D

    speaking of reporting Jupiter as a UFO..

    anyone heard any explanation of the ‘UFO’reported in Rotherham, UK today?
    Its annoying me that all the news outlets are (as usual) reporting it as aliens without any theories as to what it could really be.–New-York–Texas-and-Florida-UFO-Sightings-1288005121/

    was reported in the Sun as well I believe, but thats blocked at work


    Bjoern (#2), I think that you are being overly pedantic. The term “at that time of year” means that very minute, hour, day/night, and month of the year.

  14. quarksparrow

    I’m having trouble envisioning this … how does the milky way circle the entire horizon? And not just part of it?

  15. Voss

    The first picture looks like a transparent asteroid with stars inside. Really cool!

  16. Amir Bengali
  17. This is a good image to reference whenever the subject of rogue planets and habitability comes up. The idea of a planet with a warm and large enough core to sustain life for billions of years thanks to a thick atmosphere that doesn’t get stripped away thanks to no solar wind can sound kind of lonely, but keep in mind that they would still get to see the stars and that alone can end up being pretty bright. Same thing for a planet orbiting a brown dwarf.

  18. That is so cool. I want a dark sky like that…. Well even half that. Our skies as judged from the end of my driveway are mag 3 – anything dimmer is washed out.

  19. Bjoern

    @IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE: Yes, he could have meant it this way – but I understood it differently… Phil, could you please clear this up?

  20. Navneeth

    Oh, the panorama is so surreal. It defies words. I can’t say for certain whether I have seen the Milkyway, but I have always imagined that looking at it from a dark site would help me gain some perspective about my position in this vast universe. That picture drives home the point quite easily.

    15. quarksparrow, if you are used to seeing the sky from the northern hemisphere, and you have trouble performing mental gymnastics in imagining the view from the southern half, I suggest you use a planetarium software, like Cartes du Ciel or Stellarium, to simulate the sky from the location and do a sort of time lapse to see how the Milky Way rises and sets in those parts.

  21. Amir Bengali

    It Need To Fix Properly

  22. Jacques
  23. Yuval Kfir

    “Forbidden 403 – You don’t have permission to access /sguisard/Pagim/darkest_sky.html on this server.” Same as Amir. Shame. :-(

  24. I sent a note to Stephane. Hopefully he can fix this quickly.

  25. Robert

    @15 quarksparrow.

    I’m just a simple combo civil/computer/tribology guy, so I hope I get this right because I puzzled over it too.

    It wraps the horizon because we are in it.

    Look at an aquarium with your eyes at water level, that is how I was thinking at first. If you turn too far, the edge goes away.

    Now, get in a pool, eyes at water level, you can turn all the way around and still see the edge.

    Same same.

    Am I even close?

  26. TRL

    Hmm… I had never thought of the geometry behind this. The NGP is at declination +27.4, so anyone at latitudes +27.4 or -27.4 (close enough to Atacama) will have the MW circle the horizon twice each day. Given the width of the MW, one could see this over a range of latitudes, say +/- 2 degrees or so for the best effect. Amusing…

    Cool as it is, I would love to see the picture 6 later/earlier when the MW transits…

  27. Stéphane Guisard

    Sorry guys,

    … you were too eager to see my image, I really appreciate very much, and the server hosting my webpage did not support the number of visits, I have contacted the webmaster to fix that.

    I have prepared a “mirror” page of this page here (by the time I am writing, you can already see the Virtual Reality animation):

    Sorry for the convenience and thank you for your patience,


  28. Apparently a bunch of other sites linked to this after I did, and it flooded his server! He moved the images to a new site, and I updated the links. Should work now, or soon.

  29. Navneeth

    Phil, do you know where I can get a picture (a JPEG file, for example) of the first image? Steradianating it takes me a zoomify window (which displays an error message, anyway). I would like to use it for my desktop.

  30. brandon

    @Bjoren…. Look it up, stop trying to correct something that doesn’t need correction… inspiring photo, and well written article!

  31. brandon

    I wish I had good camera

  32. Jon Hanford

    Another factor not mentioned involving sky brightness concerns the solar cycle. Sky brightness at solar minimums can be a half magnitude darker than at solar max. I don’t see any date attributed to this image, but if taken during the current solar minimum over the past couple of years, this should also provide the darkest skies wrt the solar cycle, and truly is a picture of the darkest sky possible. It is still an awesome image, whatever the case. Here’s a link discussing the night sky brightness at (nearby) Cerro Pachon:

  33. Carlos Correia

    Congratulations to Stéphane for such an amazing picture.
    I´ve had the pleasure and the privileage of being at the Atacama, some years ago, at the original ESO´s observatory in La Silla (2400 m of altitude), and I still remember the amazing sky above our heads.
    You could read the newspaper at night just with the light from the Milky Way. And the two Magellan clouds … clearly seen, as two atmospheric clouds just passing by.

    Thanks, Phill, for sharing this one with all of us.

  34. Brian Too

    In the auto-rotating image, individual points of light were “sparkling” on and off on my monitor, mostly towards the center of the screen. I think the image quality exceeded the resolution of my monitor, so the system was valiantly trying to map the dots to available pixels.

    There even seemed to be a less sparkly area right in the middle of the most dynamic part of the image.

    Anyhow it produces a really trippy effect, and it’s slightly reminiscent of actual starlight flickering in the sky. Pretty cool.

  35. Vex

    Oh boy, I could stare at that all day long! Especially the rotating image – I’m not too sure how long I’ve just sat here watching it go around.

    My vocabulary does NOT have a word suitable enough to describe how amazing this is. THANK YOU Stephane!!!! And of course thank you Phil for sharing!

  36. Themos Tsikas

    Stephane, if you are reading this, how did you make this image? Is it a mosaic of many exposures?

  37. peter

    these photos are truly astonishing! I’ve been looking at them for quite some time now and can’t get enough. thank you stéphane

  38. Oh yes, please! A full-size downloadable version of this, which we could also resize as background!
    Possibly even a screensaver-version, showing the rotation… it is so very beautiful :-)

    Thank you, Stéphane, for creating this. And thanks, Phil, for showing it to us!

  39. Yeebok

    This comment is a brash expletive expressing wonder and awe at how great that image is. This sentence commends the photographer for yet another inspiring, well presented image.

  40. Not only is the picture a proof of an excellent sky, but also a message that Your naked eye can detect this phenomenon easily, if You are at the right place at the right time, with direct vision. No binocular/telescope needed at all!

  41. Nigel Depledge





    Erm . . . starting to run out of words now.

    Oh, no, not quite : Ooh! Shiny!

  42. Matt

    Neat. Now do the Northern hemisphere. Please.

  43. Messier Tidy Upper

    @2. Bjoern Says:

    Excuse me, but in the sentence “At that latitude, and at that time of year, the Milky Way — usually seen as a band of light across the sky — circles the horizon!”, don’t you also have to include “and at that time of the night”? Don’t the stars in the Milky Way rise and set during the night…?

    Depends on your latitude. 😉

    At the equator all the stars rise and set.

    Equally at each pole – north or South – the stars will all be circumpolar, circling the sky and neither rising nor setting just wheeling about.

    Betwixt those extremes some stars will be circumpolar whilst others will rise and set. 😉

  44. Chief

    The darkest place I’ve been on the Earth is darker than these pics. Middle of the Pacific, below the Equator, New Moon, in an area experiencing an effect known as the “Doldrums.” There was no wind, no clouds, and the sunrise and sunset landed on a mirror-smooth ocean surface. The ship’s hull made the only wave/wake/ripple on the ocean’s surface, as well a phosphorescent algae ‘sparks.’ We were steaming silently, with absolutely 0-light-emission. No light pollution from civilization was possible. We were in the absolute middle of the night, so no atmospheric ducting/refraction of the sun’s ray’s occurred. The sky was an absolute of white pin-pricks. The lumination was greater than the light given by the closest full moon. We were playing catch on a Aircraft Carrier flight deck as if it were pre-sunset. It was shocking to see the sky as one complete blanket of white, with absolutely no black spots/portions. It looked like a snow blizzard of sharp white pinpricks. If you have a ceiling finished with that ‘popcorn’ texture, then you would have an idea of the density and completeness of stars. At this time, I had been a Mariner on the world’s ocean with 6 combined years of actual ocean travel time and this was the only time the conditions conspired to open an unaffected window to the Universe. Possibly there are mariners out there who have experienced this. However, your vessel would have to be steaming under a completely 0% light-emitting condition, which is very difficult/dangerous, unless military. There also has to be %0 cloud-cover for 360 degrees all of the way to their horizons. So, when there is a complete lack of direct/reflected sunlight in the environment, the ‘white’ Universe is uncovered. The Universe’s starlight will cast shadows, just as the brightest full moonlight does, which is a silvery-type of light, with a metallic effect when it shines on water. The ocean looked like a pool of mercury.


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