Astronomers in Chile have used a special infrared telescope to capture an astounding nine billion pixel image of the center of our home galaxy. The 84 million star catalogue compiled by the ESO’s Visible Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA) is not only the biggest image of the Milky Way ever produced, but is also one of the largest astronomical images of all time.
The image captures part of the center of our spiral galaxy, known as the Galactic Bulge. The bulge is notoriously difficult to photograph as a tremendous amount of dust obscures most images, but scientists were able to sidestep this issue by using VISTA’s infrared technology.
“By observing in detail the myriads of stars surrounding the centre of the Milky Way we can learn a lot more about the formation and evolution of not only our galaxy, but also spiral galaxies in general,” said Roberto Saito, astronomer at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and lead author of the study.
Scientists were excited by the large number of red dwarf stars captured in the image, as they are ideal candidates for the use of the transit method in searching for small exoplanets like our own. The transit method observes partial blockages of a star’s light as a planet orbits in front of it. Red dwarfs are typically faint stars and therefore small interferences in their light are more easily discernible.
The VISTA image is so large that if the whole photo were rendered in the resolution of a normal book, the image would span nearly 30 feet (9 m). The ESO has made all the data from their study publically available, and what’s more they have also released the image equipped with a zoom function which makes for mind-boggling viewing.
Due to its almost non-existent humidity and clear skies, the Atacama is the planet’s premier location for astronomy. Chile is home to almost half the world’s telescope infrastructure, and this is set to increase to over two thirds by 2018.
Two more of Chile’s astronomy projects in particular have been tipped to generate groundbreaking findings. Currently under construction in the Atacama, the European Extremely Large Telescope is expected to enable astronomers to see further into the history of the universe than ever before. Meanwhile, the recently unveiled Dark Energy Camera in the Andes of Central Chile hopes to contribute to our understanding of dark matter and the makeup of the universe.