A stunning, unprecedented portrait of the Milky Way

March 20, 2014

Revealing the Milky Way

Using images from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, faculty and student scientists are helping NASA map our part of the cosmos.

Vast, wondrous, captivating -- the Milky Way Galaxy with its myriad stars, solar systems and planets -- was revealed today in an unprecedented galactic portrait.

It was unveiled at the 30th TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference in Vancouver, and is available for the public to see online in an interactive astrophysical experience: www.spitzer.caltech.edu/glimpse360.

Using images from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, faculty and student scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater are helping NASA map our part of the cosmos.

NASA launched Spitzer -- an infrared telescope -- on Aug. 25, 2003, the same day Robert Benjamin, associate professor of physics, started his job at UW-Whitewater.

"It's exciting because I've been involved in this project from the very beginning," he said. "I have been lucky enough to serve as a principal investigator for part of this project. My job is to determine how the stars are distributed across the Milky Way Galaxy."

And there are a lot of stars revealed in these new images -- more than 239 million at last count.

Most are red giants -- swollen, luminous orbs that have used up most of their nuclear fuel and can be seen across the galaxy.

Team members at other universities are exploring star formation, and are categorizing and classifying hundreds of newly discovered stellar nurseries.

"It's important because one goal of astronomy is to learn how the galaxy has changed over time," Benjamin said. "We have a front row seat in our own galaxy, but until we got this data, there were whole sections of our Milky Way we could not see. It's not possible to send a camera outside the galaxy and take a photo."

The Spitzer Space Telescope is currently circling the Sun, slightly outside the Earth's orbit.

Benjamin is among a handful of scientists with access to the more than 2.5 million images of the galaxy plane taken by a camera aboard Spitzer and beamed back to Earth.

The pictures cover a narrow band, only 3 percent of the sky, but they are stunning, revealing nebulae, bubbles, jets, bow shocks, the center of the galaxy and other exotic phenomena not visible to the naked eye or any telescopes on Earth.

"The beauty of the data is that it gives you a transparent view of the galaxy," Benjamin said. "The wavelengths of light used by Spitzer are able to penetrate interstellar dust -- fine, small particles like soot that create dark clouds that obscure our vision. It's similar to how firefighters use infrared cameras to see through smoke."

The project is known as GLIMPSE, for Galactic Legacy Infrared Mid-Plane Survey Extraordinaire. And the new composite picture is extraordinary.

UW-Whitewater's involvement in this project has provided a unique learning experience. Benjamin has recruited his physics students to look for particularly interesting objects in the GLIMPSE data.

"They get to see the data before anyone else does," he said. "They're honing their statistical analysis and image processing skills."

Students embraced the challenge.

Recent UW-Whitewater graduate Loryn Zachariasen identified 157 star-forming regions; Ashton Falduto identified 614 galaxies; and Stephanie Bessler identified 34 stellar clusters candidates.

The majority of these objects have never been catalogued before. Benjamin notes that until follow-up work is complete, the finds are known as "candidates."

"Sometimes you find an object that you think is a star formation region, but it turns out to be something else, like a data error or some other class of object," he said.

All three students presented their finds at the American Astronomical Society meeting in June 2013 in Indianapolis. Currently, Benjamin is starting a new group of students on the project, and UW-Whitewater's exploration into the galaxy's mysteries will continue.

"Galaxies change and evolve over time," Benjamin said. "If we can get a better picture of what our galaxy looks like now, we will be better able to understand how it looked in the past and what it will become in the future."

-- Written by Jeff Angileri, Photography by Craig Schreiner


Jeff Angileri

Sara Kuhl