The Milky Way from the top of the world

By Phil Plait | September 20, 2011 10:30 am

[UPDATE (February 2, 2012): It has come to my attention that the photograph that was posted here has most likely been manipulated during post-processing to a degree that is unacceptable. Because of that, I have taken it down. I do not take this action lightly, but until more information is forthcoming I think it’s best this way. National Geographic has a brief statement about this on their website as well.]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (56)

  1. This is one of the best astronomy & landscape pictures I’ve ever seen.

  2. WHOA. Whoa. Whoooooooahhhhh.

    w h o a .

  3. I know this is off-topic but maybe I’ll get a response here. I would really like a separate RSS feed for comments. Many of my favourite blogs have them. Especially on a blog with many comments like this one, one needs some method of following new comments which is better than looking at (in theory) all old posts.

    If I just can’t find it, someone point me to it. If there isn’t one, why not?

  4. Matthew

    Great picture. I really like your site Phil so don’t take this the wrong way but……nobody hikes at 8000 metres. Everest is 8848 metres. If you get to 8000 metres you might as well hike up to the top.

  5. Thank you so much for sharing, Phil =) Photos like these make me want to visit…

  6. Mejilan

    Oooh. The usual adjectives simply fade into insignificance before this majestic photograph. I’m truly stunned into respectful, awed silence…

  7. Amazing picture. Just wondering what the item is that caused the streak near the top right corner of the photo. Something orbiting earth?

  8. Chris

    There must have been some photoshopping there. You’d have to integrate for a while to see all those stars so the mount must have been spinning. If it was spinning the mountain would be all blurry. Perhaps there is some camera technique I don’t know about. In any case however it was made, it is remarkably beautiful and I applaud him for that.

  9. Paul Clapham

    What people do at elevations above 8000 metres can’t really be described as “hiking”. “Mountain climbing” would be a more accurate description. The Everest base camp is only at 5340 metres and there are walk-up peaks in the area which are a couple of hundred metres higher. Kilimanjaro claims to be the highest walkable peak in the world, and it’s less than 6000 metres high.

    There are 14 peaks whose height exceeds 8000 metres, and one of the canned objectives you can have as a mountain climber is to climb all 14 of them. (Just like climbing all the 14000-footers in Colorado.)

  10. Will

    Minor correction:

    Yes, the Annapurna massif reaches heights of over 8000M, but it only does so at the summit of Annapurna I (8,091M). It’s not like the entire mountain range is over 8000M.

    The link to the photo says that it was taken from the Modi Khola Valley on the way to the Annapurna base-camp. I would guess the photo was specifically taken near the spot where the valley passes between Hiunchuli and Machapuchare. The elevation of the valley floor in that area ranges from 3000M to 3600M. Still plenty high, but not 8000M.

  11. DaveB

    @#6 Chris…

    Dont think so, the flickr description gives the shot settings.. “30 sec, f/1.6, ISO 2500, FL 24 mm”

  12. AllyV

    This has officially replaced the false kiva picture as my absolute favorite, thanks so much!

  13. Martin

    @7 (Paul)

    The difference is that Kilimanjaro is freestanding, so you walk up all 5000m odd. The base camp of Everest is 3000m below the summit, so any walkable summits in the area are going to be a lot less actual walking than doing Kili.

  14. CR

    Re: photoshopping: Thinner air = potentially shorter exposure time, perhaps?

    Whatever, it’s a gorgeous shot of a view I’m likely never to see with my own eyes on location, so I’m glad to have viewed it here on the web!

  15. Ciaran

    @3 Phillip There’s a link for RSS feed just above the comments which should do what you’re looking for.

  16. Jeff

    Yes, I like how this is just a treeless zone where your mind would focus on the bare sky and mountain tops. You’d really feel like you were on a planet, not just a home that we normally think of. I like that when I feel so connected to the universe.

    I’ve lived in a city so long, I really feel like a bear caught in a trap, usually, only I’m in a human created maze, that isn’t satifying to the soul.

    So is this civilization really better than what our cave men ancestors lived in? I’m not at all sure anymore.

  17. PeteC

    I’d love a high-resolution version of this for my backdrop.

  18. Tom

    Phil, this is an image of literally, otherworldly beauty. I agree with CRS, it’s an image I am unlikely to see with my own eyes. Sadly, I can only see the Milky Way now if I drive miles from my current location in Kansas City. I know that’s true for any city dweller and likely to get worse in most locations.

  19. Brandon

    Many of todays hi ISO capable SLR cameras, even consumer models can really get great results when the light pollution is low.

  20. Vincent Archer

    Having visited Nepal, I can confirm the combination of stunning vistas, both terrestrial and celestial…

  21. PE

    As for the claims of photo shoppery, I think the most obvious technique he used which may lend to this photos amazingly surreal nature is HDR (compounded with a nice long shutter speed, at least a few minutes long to my estimate). For photoshop newbz, HDR is where a series (usually 3) of pictures all taken of the same scene but with different exposure levels are merged together to create a comprehensive, evenly developed (and in this case, delicious) photograph.

  22. For those wondering about HDR or photoshoppery: I think you’re laboring under the experience of people who live too close to lights. This is Nepal. I doubt there was much light pollution, and all that was illuminating the mountain was starlight and airglow.

  23. Ohio Mike

    Just to add what a few other posters have said: The zone above 8000 meters is the so called Death Zone. If you are not acclimated to this altitude over a period several weeks the chances you will survive are frighteningly close to zero. Also, very few people even try to “hike” the Death Zone without bottled oxygen even with acclimatization.

    I recently read “Into Thin Air” by John Krakauer which details a harrowing, and deadly, expedition to the summit of Mt. Everest.

  24. Sure… You can see clouds of dust in the milky way like this without a telescope. Suckers.

  25. shunt1

    An image like that would be impossible to obtain using HDR. With HDR, each image would have a different shutter speed and star trail length. This is a good example of when HDR would not be appropriate.

    When living in New Mexico, I was often amazed to see my own shadow cast upon the ground on a moonless night, from nothing but star light.

    I am not seeing any Moon reflections in that image and the source of the light is consistent with a milky way origin.

    Very close inspection of the stars do show small trails, so I would expect the shutter speed to be about 30 seconds with an ISO of 3200. Just my guess, but the star trails were rather short and anything longer than one minute would leave longer streaks. The lens focal length would be around 25mm, because of the wide field of view.

    Fantastic image!

  26. shunt1

    @12 DaveB:

    Sorry, I had not seen your comment above and was making my best guess. I was not exact, but darn close! Now, where did he get a F/1.6 lense, since that is HUGE!

    DaveB: Dont think so, the flickr description gives the shot settings.. “30 sec, f/1.6, ISO 2500, FL 24 mm”

  27. noonan

    The image almost mirrors itself. Milky way looks like a valley similar to the Annapurna valley the photographer found himself in.

  28. Tristan

    DaveB: No, I think that shot is easily achievable in one exposure (the challenge is in getting there to take the exposure, and having the skills and equipment to set it up just so). For comparison, here’s an image I took a number of years ago using substantially inferior equipment and in a more light polluted location (the Samsonvale cemetery near Brisbane, while waiting for a Leonid meteor shower that never really showed up). Vital stats on the image are 17mm (equivalent to 27mm on a 35mm camera) f4.0, ISO 800, 54 seconds exposure. At that focal length, 54 seconds is just long enough for the stars to start forming trails when viewed at full resolution.

    Now imagine widening the aperture to 1.6 (letting a bit over 5 times the light in), increasing the ISO to 2500 (a sensitivity increase of over 8-fold), reducing the exposure to 30 seconds and factoring in the substantially improved signal-t0-noise ratio of more modern cameras, and that image seems perfectly reasonable with no more than standard post-processing.

    Incidentally, it looks like he even managed to capture a meteor (or is it a satellite?) – at the top right corner.

  29. Tom

    Interestingly, the higher you go, the less you might “see”, since above about 12,000 ft (~3650 m) oxygen deprivation starts to kick in. I was surprised the first time I was at the top of Mauna Kea, 13,600 ft (~4145 m), and saw a very dim sky. The regulars told me that the view was much better at Hale Pohaku at about 9,000 ft (~2745 m) and they were right.

  30. Ssantana

    Absolutely breathtakingly gorgeous! I have seen similar vistas on the Annapurna trek and in Jiri, Nepal, but none framed so dramatically. And FYI, the highest point on the Annapurna trek is about 6167 meters (18,500 ft) at the Thorung La pass. I survived it but never again!

  31. Karishma Chand

    As a person born and brought up in Nepal, and someone who has actually been to this very place, I can assure you that the photographer has used very little photography skills into capturing this scene !At that elevation,the clarity of the air is simple astounding and this is how the milky way does appear.A slow shutter speed and a good HD camera with twilight settings is all is needed here …However, this is a great shot indeed I’d say he has done justice to the majestic Annapurna range … or as I have dubbed it as ” The Valley of the Gods “!

  32. Tom: I’ve heard the same thing from an astrogeek who did some work at Mauna Kea some years back.

    He told tales (likely true, knowing the individual) of watching what happened when they “took a hit”of oxygen.

  33. Nigel Depledge

    That is one amazing photo.

  34. allan absalon

    whoa!!!! very stunning!

  35. DesiTraveller

    Great photo…

    I’ve trekked up to Annapurna Base Camp, and this valley is close to ABC (in fact just short of Maccapuchhare Base Camp that leads to ABC), but nowhere near 8000m. It’s probably closer to 3600m.

    Unfortunately, my day through here on the way up was through torrential rain so had no such luck with night time viewing!!

  36. MoMan

    Question from a layman: In Vernaculerese we say “The air is thin.” Is the air really thin, i.e. noticeably lacking oxygen, or is it the lower atmospheric pressure that causes the difficulty with breathing?

  37. Andrew

    MoMan, it is simply that the pressure is lower, though it is not that the different pressure causes difficulty breathing, it’s that there’s less to breathe.

    As Phil says, at 8000m the pressure is 1/3 that at sea level so a one litre volume of air at 8000m contains 1/3 the number of molecules of the constituent gases, though in the same proportion. It comes out of the ideal gas law:

    PV=nRT – pressure times volume is equal to the number of atoms times the ideal gas constant times temperature.

    So holding volume constant (you can’t make your lungs bigger), the drop in pressure reduces the number of molecules of oxygen available. The drop in temperature at altitude partially compensates, but to fully compensate for the drop to 1/3 pressure, you’d need to go to 1/3 temperature. But this is absolute temperature, so from 20°C (room temperature – 293K), you’d have to go down to 98K or -175°C / -283°F.

  38. MoMan

    Bless you, Andrew. You’ve made an old man very happy. Nurse, could you give me a little whiff of my oxygen now while I enjoy my memories of cold nights in high places?

  39. Kathleen

    cool very freakin Cool

  40. Beautiful. :-)

    And in the High Places
    They look up
    At Wonders.
    Numinous made sense~ible.
    Feel small beyond measure
    Also privileged and awestruck
    Beyond measure.
    For this, this

  41. … & I can almost feel the chill of that image on my skin.

    The shivering and breath-misting air and, above it, what star speckled marvels puncture multiple~y the unending dark (Sacre Noir – quoth Sagan in Pale Blue Dot, his book) with spots, incomprehensibly distant and unfathomably huge in scale, that are natural nuclear fires at their cores – some exponentially brighter than our Sun. Can you imagine aught that’s merely twice as bright?

  42. don gisselbeck

    At 46000 m on Mt Kenya M33 was very obvious and a good dozen stars were visible in the Pleides all with a quarter moon high in the sky. This was in Aug 1981:

  43. Veluz

    Why are space pictures always lower res? Make them biiiiiig. Like space.


    Like space.

  44. don gisselbeck

    That would be 4600 m of course.

  45. Bloomington Ferry Bridge

    Wow. Phil, this is a fantastic image. My hat’s off to the guy to hiked that far into the atmosphere to get this picture.


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