The Milky Way bridges from here to eternity

By Phil Plait | April 6, 2011 7:00 am

The European Southern Observatory’s monster 8-meter Very Large Telescope observatory is silhouetted against the galaxy itself — and beyond — in this stunning vista of the high Atacama desert of Chile:

[Click to southernhemispherenate.]

What a breathtaking panorama! It’s dominated by the Milky Way Galaxy, hanging low near the horizon. We live inside the disk of our galaxy, so we see it from the inside out. It makes a thick line across the sky, the central hub bulging out in the middle. Dust chokes the interstellar view, creating dark lanes that block the light from stars behind them.

On the left you can see the two companion dwarf galaxies to our own: the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. They apparently hang side-by-side in the sky, but are separated by over 40,000 light years… and are removed from us by distances of 160,000 and 200,000 light years, respectively.

And on the right is our eye on the sky, Unit Telescope 1 of the VLT — and that’s only one of four of the giant 8 meter telescopes in operation. I like the imagery here: the telescope at one end, distant galaxies on the other, and bridging them like a cosmic rainbow is our home galaxy itself.

You may make your own metaphor here, but the one I choose is obvious. You might even say this post is entitled to it.

[Edited to add: After writing this, but before posting it, I found that APOD had a very similar picture to this one. Funny coincidence!]

Image credit: ESO/Y. Beletsky


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (36)

  1. Scottie davis

    AMAZING, SIMPLLY AMAZING.

  2. Aubri

    New wallpaper!

  3. What an absolutely stunning image. I know what’s going to be my desktop background for a while!

  4. Nigel Depledge

    Whoa. Not bad.

    (Yes, it’s a movie reference, for no good reason.)

  5. Messier Tidy Upper

    Magnificent panorama indeed. Thanks. :-)

    You may make your own metaphor here ..

    Okay, but is it alright if I mention a metaphor from another culture :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bifrost

    albeit from the wrong hemisphere for this? It seems like an apt one. ;-)

    On the left you can see the two companion dwarf galaxies to our own: the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds.

    [Pedant mode on] Sorry BA, but shouldn’t that be :

    “two of the many companion dwarf galaxies to our own.”

    Otherwise you appear to be forgetting the likes of the Sagittarius Dwarf Elliptical Galaxy (SagDEG – see : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sagittarius_Dwarf_Elliptical_Galaxy )
    the Carina dwarf, Leo’s I, II and IV, the hercules dwarf spheroidal and the other natural satellites* of our Milky Way :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milky_Way%27s_satellite_galaxies

    There’s a lot more than just two! ;-)

    Yeah, that’s being very nit-pickety I know but I just can’t help but point it out. [/Pedant mode off]

    * I *really* want look forward to the day when Humanity has sent up an artificial satellite for our Galaxy too! ;-)

  6. flash

    It’s a cosmic raimbow, ALL THE WAY across the sky!

  7. Sandor
  8. Jason

    Added to my Space folder for randomly rotating high res desktop backgrounds, Thanks!

  9. Ed

    In a related note, you should check out a documentary by Patricio Guzman called “Nostalgia for the Light” about the Atacama desert. It talks about the importance of the desert in learning about the past among astronomers, archeologists, and the families of Chilean political prisoners who were buried in unmarked graves out there. It does a magnificent job of showing how important it is to understand the past, whether in the sky or in the desert below.

  10. Number 6

    @flash….Great description!

    Thanks for sharing, Phil…Astonishing photo!

  11. jennyxyzzy

    OK, I admit to being a little confused about this photo. I recently had the opportunity to see the Milky Way and the two Magellanic clouds with the naked eye, whilst camping in the south west of Australia. The Milky Way basically ran (roughly) north-south in the sky, with the Magellanic clouds appearing to the right of the Milky Way.

    OK, I can understand how the Magellanic clouds appear to have changed sides – the photo is reversed, but how does the Milky Way end up lying on it’s side? I thought it might be due to the latitude of the VLT being further south, but it appears to be roughly the same latitude as where I was. Different times of the year maybe? But this seems to have been taken at about the same time as my observation ( 4-5 weeks ago).

    I understand that a panoramic photo is going to create an arc (such as in the APOD photo that Phil linked to), but in this photo the Milky Way barely arcs at all, it really does lie along the horizon.

    Can anyone explain the reason for the Milky Way’s orientation in the sky?

  12. John Nouveaux

    Prediction: January, 2012: This one makes the 2011 Top 10 Astronomy Photos

    :-)

  13. @jennyxyzzy: If latitude and time of year were the same, I’d go with time of night. The Milky Way should change positions over the course of the night, right? I could be wrong, though.

  14. Maria

    Holy carp, that is stunning.

    @jennyxyzzy
    I’m not sure without more details about what it is supposed to look like with the naked eye (never having had the opportunity to see this view.) Judging from the way the road barrier bulges in the middle of the photo and then tapers away on both sides this was taken with a really wide angle. So maybe the visual effect is due to the fish eye/super wide angle lens?

  15. Keith Bowden

    BA, this is specTACular!

    @MTU – Bifrost all the way, mate!

    I have 4×3 monitors so I’m gonna have to resize this at work for my wallpaper – I hate distorted images. :) (My notebook, naturally, has a widescreen.)

  16. Stunning! This made me even more excited about starting a science communication internship at ESO’s headquarters in mid-April. I suppose I’ll get so see images like this every week. Thanks!

  17. Len

    What are the red blobs to the left and slightly above the sign that’s beside the telescope?

  18. Robin Byron

    Probably one of the most awe inspiring pictures of our galaxy I’ve ever seen. Wish my late wife could have seen this one.

  19. Jeffersonian

    Way cool.

    (To be be picky, at 8500′, this isn’t really the the High Atacama, since the Puna reaches over 21,000′ and averages 14,000′ on the plateau).

  20. Chris A.

    @Len:
    The large red blob is the North America Nebula (NGC 7000) and the smaller one is the Gamma Cygni Nebula (IC 1318).

  21. jackobill

    This was taken from Chile.. so we see our galaxy from the inside out AND upside down!
    wow.. I feel so confused now

  22. Sean H.

    I want to see the night sky from the southern hemisphere in person sometime before I die. Preferably from a dark location. Beautiful. Actually, I really want to see the Northern Hemisphere’s sky in exceptionally dark conditions. *sigh*

  23. Mathias R.

    I want that as a poster. :(

  24. Amazingly beautiful….take your breath away!! Sweden

  25. Steve D

    The south galactic pole must have been nearly overhead when this picture was taken. It’s in the constellation Sculptor, in a very empty part of the autum sky as seen from the Northern Hemisphere. The nearby star Fomalhaut would have been almost overhead.

    An artificial satellite of our galaxy would take at least as long to make an orbit as our Sun does – about 250 million years.

  26. Brian Too

    Hey telescope! I’m lookin’ at you! Right atcha!

    OK the Milky Way is more interesting.

  27. Mike

    Can anyone tell me what kinda of camera filters are used to take these kinds of images? Is it some sort of Hydrogen-Alpha?

    This can’t be a naked eye view right?

  28. Paul

    No details on how this was taken???

    It must have been a fast exposure as there is very little motion blur in the stars and yet the milky way is so bright.

    Its in the same position as the ground based objects so it can’t be photo stacking.

    Must be heavily post processed to enhance brightness and color.

    Phil you can’t post this kind of picture without details of how it was done, camera, lens, exposure, aperture etc… !!!!!!!

  29. Messier Tidy Upper

    @27. Steve D Says:

    The south galactic pole must have been nearly overhead when this picture was taken. It’s in the constellation Sculptor, in a very empty part of the autum sky as seen from the Northern Hemisphere. The nearby star Fomalhaut would have been almost overhead.

    The nearby star that ha sthe first directly imaged planets found orbiting it -and tehsecond brightest planet-hosting star by a very narrow margin behind Pollux that is :

    http://stars.astro.illinois.edu/sow/fomalhaut.html

    &

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2008/11/13/huge-exoplanet-news-items-pictures/

    &

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pollux_b

    PS. Will be offline for a few days from now just in case anyone wonders. Holiday. :-)

  30. Douglas Troy

    There’s an eye-opener, and no mistake. – Samwise Gamgee, LOTR.

  31. Len

    Thanks, Chris A #21!

  32. Nigel Depledge

    Mike (30) said:

    Can anyone tell me what kinda of camera filters are used to take these kinds of images? Is it some sort of Hydrogen-Alpha?

    This can’t be a naked eye view right?

    And Paul (31) said:

    No details on how this was taken???

    It must have been a fast exposure as there is very little motion blur in the stars and yet the milky way is so bright.

    Its in the same position as the ground based objects so it can’t be photo stacking.

    Must be heavily post processed to enhance brightness and color.

    Phil you can’t post this kind of picture without details of how it was done, camera, lens, exposure, aperture etc… !!!!!!!

    Well, I have not looked into how this was done, but I can tell you one way in which it could have been done.

    IIUC, the shot is a panorama, i.e. several frames stitched together with software. That explains the super-wide angley goodness of the shot (although it could be a crop of a shot taken with a fisheye lens).

    To get such brightness and clarity from the stars, you need long exposures, even with a reasonably sensitive camera. (I guess it could be an exposure of a mere handful of seconds with a super-duper highly-sensitive camera, but let’s go with assumption A for now.) On any exposure longer than about a minute, the stars will streak out into trails due to the rotation of the Earth (0.25° per minute). Thus, the star shot is probably tracked (i.e. camera mounted on an equatorial tracking mount). However, on a tracked shot, the buildings will be blurred due to the motion of the camera.

    So, my guess is that this is a composite of some shots with the camera fixed (to get the foreground sharp) and some shots with the camera tracking (to get the brightness and clarity of the stars).

    I hope this helps.

  33. There is another way to do it without a tracking mount, at least I think it would work. Stack it.

    Get a fairly sensitive camera and take lots of shots of the same area fo sky, stabilise them and then layer them up in your image editor … I did something similar here:

    http://1200mil.blogspot.com/2011/04/boys-are-back-in-town.html

    and that’s using a Canon 20D – not the newest, or most sensitive camera (you can see the noise) … so I would think out could do an image like this by stacking lots and lots of shots together, then stacking them up, and colour correcting … my 2c only.

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