You Are Here: A Whole-Sky Time-Lapse of the Galactic Center

By Rebecca J. Rosen

Astrophotographer Stéphane Guisard's latest work showcases the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way, as seen at zenith from the Paranal Observatory in Chile's Atacama desert. Two of our neighboring galaxies, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, also appear in the sky's upper left corner.

The Milky Way is what's known as a "barred spiral galaxy," which is pretty much like it sounds -- a spiral shape with a starry bar at the center. Here's a nice face-on view of one known as NGC 1300, some 69 million light years away:

Hubble2005-01-barred-spiral-galaxy-NGC1300.jpg

A picture like that is a good proxy for what our own galaxy would look like if we could see it from afar. But this will never happen, at least not in any realistic foreseeable future. To get a picture like that, a full face-on view of the spiral, we'd need a spacecraft outside our galaxy, and we haven't even gotten one outside our own solar system (yet). The best images we do have of our galaxy come from our space telescopes, which are stationed very close to our planet, which itself is located in one of the spiral's arms. These images are gorgeous, but they don't show the spiral -- they can't, since they're taken from within it. Instead, they look like this: 

Center_of_the_Milky_Way_Galaxy_IV_–_Composite.jpg

The galactic center. Composite of images from NASA's three "Great Observatories" -- Hubble, Spitzer, and Chandra. (NASA)

So remember: If anyone puts up a poster of a pretty spiral galaxy with a big "You are here" arrow, they are full of it.

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We just have to make do with the beautiful sights of the Milky Way taken from observatories both here and in space, the images we have of other galaxies, and our imaginations. I think we can manage.




H/t Ross Andersen

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/06/you-are-here-a-whole-sky-time-lapse-of-the-galactic-center/276891/