“A billion stars revealed”

A stunning image was unveiled last week at the UK-Germany National Astronomy Meeting NAM2012 in Manchester. [All images courtesy of Mike Read (WFAU), UKIDSS/GPS and VVV]

The BBC’s Spaceman, Jonathan Amos, helpfully provides this combination image, with a partial zoom-in on the Galactic center.

But to really appreciate the scale and detail of the image you need to use the online interactive viewer here.

From the University of Edinburgh press release

Astronomers have today released a picture containing more than one billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy. It combines data from two near-infrared1 telescopes – the UK Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) in Hawaii and the VISTA telescope in Chile –  and is the result of a decade-long collaboration by astronomers at the University of Edinburgh and the University of Cambridge to process, archive and publish the prodigious quantities of sky survey data generated by these two telescopes.

Dr Phil Lucas from the University of Hertfordshire leads the UKIRT study of the Milky Way, and co-leads the VISTA study. He said: “The combined data on over a billion stars represent a scientific legacy that will be exploited for decades in many different ways. They provide a three-dimensional view of the structure of our spiral galaxy, the Milky Way, while also mapping several hundred nebulae where stars are being born. The VISTA data, in particular, is breaking new ground by showing how several hundred million stars vary in brightness over time.”

The full image contains 150 billion pixels, and the detail it contains is only revealed by the three zoom levels, centred on G305, a large and complex star-formation region: the innermost zoom covers a tiny fraction of the full image, but still contains more than ten thousand stars.

And here is one of those innermost zoomed images

Among all those stars there could be any number of other pale blue dots…  We just need to keep hunting.

But to give you an idea of how “vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big” space actually is, consider this.

Most of the individual points of light in that last innermost zoomed image is a star similar to our own.

After over 33 years of travelling through space, Nasa’s Voyager 1 probe is now around 18 billion km from Earth, over 120 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun (AU), or about 16.5 light-hours away, and has only reached the bubbly edge of our own Sun’s reach…

And on that note, because I can, here again is some wondrous time-lapse video of the night-sky above the ESO Very Large Telescope array [VLT], in Chile, from NikoBustos. [Video credit: ESO/José Francisco Salgado (josefrancisco.org)]

Or even this [Video credit: ESO/S. Guisard (www.eso.org/~sguisard) ESO/José Francisco Salgado (josefrancisco.org)]

Adds  I should have pointed out that, of course, the Milky Way is just one galaxy among many

And here’s a quick zoom through images from the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field towards UDFy-38135539, the most distant galaxy ever detected.  [Video credit: A. M. Swinbank and S. Zieleniewski, Music: movetwo.]