The winner of this year’s Best But Most Misleading Acronym goes to GLIMPSE360, the Galactic Legacy Mid-Plane Survey Extraordinaire project at the University of Wisconsin which has produced not a glimpse but a zoomable, 360-degree portrait of the entire Milky Way galaxy.
Unveiled to lucky attendees at a recent TED conference in Vancouver, University of Wisconsin astronomers headed by Barb Whitney painstakingly pieced together 2 million infrared images of the Milky Way taken by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, which was launched in 2003 and has continued to take outstanding pictures long after its projected two-and-a-half year lifespan was passed.
Since it uses infrared light, the Spitzer telescope can see through space dust, viewing past the Milky Way galaxy’s center to the outer edges of the spiral arms of stars on the opposite side. Using all of this new data, the GLIMPSE team has discovered that the galaxy is slightly larger than previously thought and is filled with bubble structures that are actually cavities around stars blowing wind and radiation outward. They can also see the regions where new stars are forming and get a better count on the stellar birth rate.
The portrait can’t be fully appreciated in print. Robert Hurt, an imaging specialist at NASA’s Spitzer Space Science Center, describes the problem this way:
If we actually printed this out, we’d need a billboard as big as the Rose Bowl Stadium to display it.
Instead, they used Microsoft’s WorldWide Telescope visualization platform to make the 20-gigapixel image available online for anyone to view. The GLIMPSE team has set up a “citizen science” project called the Milky Way Project where amateur astronomers can help them search the composite image to locate and identify objects.
For best results, the first step is to put on some Pink Floyd.