‘Galactic Panorama’ of Milky Way Details 3.3 Billion Celestial Objects

Astronomers have identified 3.32 billion celestial objects in the Milky Way in unprecedented detail.

The galactic panorama of stars, gas, dust and a supermassive black hole known as Sagittarius A* was captured by the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Dark Energy Camera on a 4-meter telescope. It’s housed at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in northern Chile, which sits at an altitude of 7,200 feet, allowing for one of the clearest views of the night sky. 

“This is quite a technical feat. Imagine a group photo of over three billion people and every single individual is recognizable,” said

Debra Fischer,

division director of astronomical sciences at the National Science Foundation. “Astronomers will be poring over this detailed portrait of more than three billion stars in the Milky Way for decades to come,” she said. 

Gathering the latest batch of data from the project, known as the Dark Energy Camera Plane Survey, took over two years. It involved around 260 hours of observation with 21,000 exposures, resulting in more than 10 terabytes of data. Along with an earlier data release in 2017, the project has now covered 6.5% of the night sky.

Researchers pointed the telescope at a region of the Milky Way with “an extraordinarily high density of stars,” said

Andrew Saydjari,

a graduate student at Harvard University who worked on the project. “Doing so allowed us to produce the largest catalog ever from a single camera, in terms of the number of objects observed,” he said.

Images released in the survey show part of the Milky Way’s spiral disk, where most of the stars and dust are located. 

The team targeted a region of the Milky Way with ‘an extraordinarily high density of stars,’ a researcher said.


DECaPS2/DOE/FNAL/DECam/CTIO/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/E. Slawik Image processing: M. Zamani & D. de Martin (NSF’s NOIRLab)

One small portion of the broader panoramic image is entirely filled with celestial objects, illustrating the challenges researchers faced identifying individual stars due to the sheer number that overlap one another. 

“By observing at near-infrared wavelengths, they were able to peer past much of the light-absorbing dust,” according to the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, which is affiliated with the project. 

The survey data was published Wednesday in the Astrophysical Journal Supplement.

Write to Talal Ansari at talal.ansari@wsj.com

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