The project allows stargazers to explore and experience the Universe as it is seen with the unaided eye from the darkest and best viewing locations in the world.
This 360-degree panoramic image, covering the entire celestial sphere, reveals the cosmic landscape that surrounds our tiny blue planet. This gorgeous starscape serves as the first of three extremely high-resolution images featured in the GigaGalaxy Zoom project, launched by ESO within the framework of the International Year of Astronomy 2009 (IYA2009). GigaGalaxy Zoom features a web tool that allows users to take a breathtaking dive into our Milky Way. With this tool users can learn more about many different and exciting objects in the image, such as multicoloured nebulae and exploding stars, just by clicking on them. In this way, the project seeks to link the sky we can all see with the deep, “hidden” cosmos that astronomers study on a daily basis. The wonderful quality of the images is a testament to the splendour of the night sky at ESO’s sites in Chile, which are the most productive astronomical observatories in the world.
The plane of our Milky Way Galaxy, which we see edge-on from our perspective on Earth, cuts a luminous swath across the image. The projection used in GigaGalaxy Zoom place the viewer in front of our Galaxy with the Galactic Plane running horizontally through the image — almost as if we were looking at the Milky Way from the outside. From this vantage point, the general components of our spiral galaxy come clearly into view, including its disc, marbled with both dark and glowing nebulae, which harbours bright, young stars, as well as the Galaxy’s central bulge and its satellite galaxies.
The painstaking production of this image came about as a collaboration between ESO, the renowned French writer and astrophotographer Serge Brunier and his fellow Frenchman Frédéric Tapissier. Brunier spent several weeks during the period between August 2008 and February 2009 capturing the sky, mostly from ESO observatories at La Silla and Paranal in Chile. In order to cover the full Milky Way, Brunier also made a week-long trip to La Palma, one of the Canary Islands, to photograph the northern skies . Once the raw photographs were in hand, image processing by Tapissier and ESO experts helped to convey accurately the night sky as our eyes behold it . The resulting image, now available on GigaGalaxy Zoom, is composed of almost 300 fields each individually captured by Brunier four times, adding up to nearly 1200 photos that encompass the entire night sky.
“I wanted to show a sky that everyone can relate to — with its constellations, its thousands of stars, with names familiar since childhood, its myths shared by all civilisations since Homo became Sapiens,” says Brunier. “The image was therefore made as man sees it, with a regular digital camera under the dark skies in the Atacama Desert and on La Palma.”
As photographing extended over several months, objects from the Solar System came and went through the star fields, with bright planets such as Venus and Jupiter. A brilliant, emerald-green comet also flew by, although spotting it among a background of tens of millions of stars will be difficult (but rewarding).
Overall, the creators of the GigaGalaxy Zoom project hope that these tremendous efforts in bringing the night sky as observed under the best conditions on the planet to stargazers everywhere will inspire awe for the beautiful, immense Universe that we live in.“The vision of the IYA2009 is to help people rediscover their place in the Universe through the day- and night-time sky, and this is exactly what the GigaGalaxy Zoom project is all about,” says project coordinator Henri Boffin.
The second dramatic GigaGalaxy Zoom image will be revealed next week, on 21 September 2009.Notes
 The data processing, using software called Autopano Pro Giga, took great care in respecting the colours and “texture” of the Milky Way. Frédéric Tapissier needed about 340 computing hours on a powerful PC to complete the task.Links
Serge Brunier is a French journalist, photographer and writer who specialises in popularising astronomy. He is a regular contributor to Science & Vie magazine, and to the France Info radio station. He has written numerous popular astronomy books, translated into over ten languages, and is a prize-winning photographer, who has captured images of solar eclipses from the most amazing places in the world. A life-long quest for the best skies in the world led him to Chile.This whole sky panorama was presented from 25 August till 13 September 2009 in the exhibition "Un ciel pour la planète" (A sky for the planet) in the Atrium of the Monte-Carlo Casino, Monaco. With a giant print of 12 times 6 metres, the exhibition was under the Patronage of The Prince Albert II of Monaco, and showed with images and videos the making of this unique ESO project.
Henri Boffin | EurekAlert!
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