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One billion stars (and a huge amount of data)


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To say a picture is worth a thousand words would be selling this one rather short.

Full image containing (at least) a billion stars. Click for a bigger version, see text for the really big version, or scroll down for zoomed in view. Credit: Mike Read (WFAU), UKIDSS/GPS and VVV

This edge-on image of the Milky Way contains at least a billion stars. The full version is available here. But be warned: it’s 39,300 by 3,750 pixels. My laptop was not at all happy when I tried to download it, and your machine may feel similarly.

The truth is that no computer screen could ever really do it justice. But here we go anyway…

A zoomed in version of the full picture, looking at a star forming region. Click for a bigger version. Credit: Mike Read (WFAU), UKIDSS/GPS and VVV

The above picture, zoomed in even more on the star forming region. There are still over ten thousand stars in this picture. Click for a bigger version. Credit: Mike Read (WFAU), UKIDSS/GPS and VVV

Scientists made the image by combining infrared images from two sky surveys done by the UK Infrared Telescope in Hawaii and ESO’s VISTA in Chile. By looking at infrared light, scientist are able to cut through much of the dust in the Milky Way that would otherwise obscure light coming from the centre of the galaxy.

After collection, the data was processed and archived by teams at the universities of Edinburgh and Cambridge in the UK. It is now available to researchers around the world who want to have a go at analysing it.

“Having data processed, archived and published by dedicated teams leaves other scientists free to concentrate on using the data and is a very cost-effective way to do astronomy,” said Nick Cross from the University of Edinburgh, in a press release for the picture.

The project is called the VISTA Data Flow System and is funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council. It aims to make use of the vast amount of data the telescope is capable of recording – up to 1.4 TB per night for 10 years. The idea is that the data will be stored in an archive that is “more than a simple repository of data.” Scientists should be able to mine this archive for discoveries in years to come.

This one should keep them busy for a while.

Kelly Oakes About the Author: Kelly Oakes has a master's in science communication and a physics degree, both from Imperial College London. Now she spends her days writing about science. Follow on Twitter @kahoakes.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. em_allways_right 6:54 pm 03/29/2012

    Kelly if you ever make it Minnesota I’ll take you out for a drink.

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  2. 2. jtdwyer 7:20 pm 03/29/2012

    Nice image – thanks.
    BTW, the speed depends on your internet connection (although the download’s impact on other processes depends on processor speed, etc.). My old laptop did fine with it…

    Link to this
  3. 3. Autaut 2:53 am 03/30/2012

    Though windows tools can’t handle it, viewing with GIMP worked like a charm.
    Thanks for the image.

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  4. 4. jobjob 8:31 am 03/30/2012

    Cool! But… how does an image contain a billion stars when it contains less than 0.15 billion pixels?

    Link to this
  5. 5. Synaptik Krapp 9:37 am 03/30/2012

    4. jobjob
    8:31 am 03/30/2012
    Cool! But… how does an image contain a billion stars when it contains less than 0.15 billion pixels?

    Volume

    Link to this

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