Under the Milky Way: what a new map reveals about our galaxy

Lister Staveley-Smith | First published: 20 October 2016, 21:05 IST
Starry sky

Look up on any clear night and if you're lucky you may be able to see part of the Milky Way stretching across the sky.

For many thousands of years that was all people could see of our galaxy, though today light pollution means even that view is now fading for many naked-eye observers.

Even for astronomers, much of our galaxy is obscured from view in the visible light spectrum, including the galactic centre.

Our view of the Milky Way has also come a long way since the first observation on March 25, 1951, of the famous 21-cm neutral hydrogen line by Harvard astronomers Harold Ewen and Edward Purcell.

Dutch astronomer Hendrik van de Hulst in the 1940s had provided the first prediction of the existence of this faint cosmic emission, the detection of which was to revolutionise radio astronomy.

Observations of signals at this wavelength by radio telescopes allowed the spiral structure of the Milky Way to be seen for the first time.

A clearer view

Today sees the opening of a new chapter of discovery with the release of a brand new view of the Milky Way, published in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.

The map stems from a decade of analysis and thousands of hours of observing time on the 64-metre CSIRO Parkes radio telescope in New South Wales, Australia, and the 100-metre Max-Planck radio telescope in Effelsberg, Germany.

The outcome is a brand new hydrogen image of the Milky Way and its environment with a level of detail that is at least four times better than previous images.

This HI4PI image colours reflect gas at differing velocities. The plane of the Milky Way runs horizontally across the middle and the Magellanic Clouds can be seen at the lower right.