By Patricia Daukantas
Earlier this year, I wrote about the increasing amount of collaboration between professional and amateur astronomers, due in no small part to the growing availability of amateur optical and imaging equipment. A new International Year of Astronomy project by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) gives viewers all over the world a magnificent vista of the Milky Way from amateur telescopes.
The Web site GigaGalaxy Zoom allows users to zoom in on incredible views of our home galaxy and its center. The first image, released September 14, shows a panorama of the entire Milky Way as photographed from both the northern and southern hemispheres. You can zoom in on such “destinations” as the beautiful Rosette Nebula and the Magellanic Clouds, which are actually irregular dwarf galaxies passing by our neighborhood. The second image, released yesterday, focuses on the center of the Milky Way and features star-forming regions, a globular cluster and dark clouds of dust.
With such awesome resolution (800 million and 340 million pixels, respectively), you might think that ESO took these two panoramas with its collection of gigantic observatories: the Very Large Telescope and the three instruments at La Silla (all in Chile) or even Europe’s share of Hubble Space Telescope time.
The photographer for the galaxy-wide panorama, French photojournalist Serge Brunier, used a Nikon digital camera with a 50-mm lens and an equatorial mount (to compensate for the Earth’s rotation during the exposures). He took the photographs from ESO sites in Chile as well as La Palma in the Canary Islands. His collaborator, Frederic Tapissier of France, and ESO imaging experts digitally stitched together nearly 1,200 separate photos to show the entire sky.
Likewise, the Milky Way center was imaged by Stephane Guisard, another French native who works as an ESO optical engineer in Chile by day and an amateur astrophotographer by night. With his 10-cm telescope, he collected 1,200 images constituting more than 200 hours of exposure time over 29 nights under the clear skies of Paranal Observatory – all on his “free time.”
ESO plans to release the final panoramic portrait in this series next Monday, September 28. I can’t wait!