Epic Milky Way photo shows star-forming regions

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NEW YORK – A new map of the Milky Way has been released, giving astronomers a detailed look at the cold, dense gas floating throughout our galaxy from which stars are born.

The APEX telescope in Chile recently completed a map called ATLASGAL (The APEX Telescope Large Area Survey of the Galaxy) by using previously collected data from the Southern Hemisphere of the Galactic Plane, where a majority of the Milky Way’s mass lies.

“We can for the first time get a full census of the star-forming regions within our own galaxy,” European Southern Observatory scientist Carlos De Breuck told CNN. “This allows us to find all such regions and to study their properties, such as the size of the gas clumps from which stars are formed.”

It’s the first image of its kind to be captured at the submillimeter wavelengths between infrared light and radio waves. And the image is much larger and better detailed than its first version, mapping a more complete picture of the Milky Way’s dust and gases.

“Seen in visible light, these regions of the universe are often dark and obscured due to the dust, but they shine brightly in the millimetre and submillimetre part of the spectrum,” according to the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

The APEX mapping was done in the span of several years, between July 2007 and November 2010 because of the sheer size of the survey, according to Breuck. The survey was combined and analyzed with other data. The findings were published in the January 2016 journal of Astronomy & Astrophysics.

The 40-foot APEX radio telescope, which sits about 16,700 feet above sea level on the Chajnantor Plateau in Chile’s Atacama region, has given astronomers the ability to study the “cold universe” — gas and dust with temperatures near absolute zero.

If you look at the map, the APEX data appears in red. The blue in the image was captured at shorter infrared wavelengths by the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope as part of the GLIMPSE survey. And the fainter red structures come from corresponding observations made by ESA’s Planck satellite.

“The Southern Hemisphere is much better to observe the Milky Way, as the Galactic Center is high up in the sky,” Breuck said. The Galactic Center is the rotational center of the Milky Way. It’s difficult to observe from North America and Europe. The northern part of the Milky Way was previously documented by the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope at Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii.

If you want to explore more of our galaxy, you’re in luck. All the final ATLASGAL images are publicly available from the ESO archive. Professional and amateur astronomers alike are welcomed and encouraged to download the data.

“We hope to have a lasting legacy for ATLASGAL and show the important role that the APEX telescope has for the astronomical community,” Breuck said.

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