Sweeping New Milky Way Portrait captures over 3 billion stars
How many stars can you count when you look up in the? Not nearly as much as the Dark Energy Camera in Chile. Scientists have released a survey of a portion of our own Milky Way galaxy that contains 3.32 billion celestial bodies, including billions of stars.
The National Science Foundation’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory (NOIRLab) operates DECam as part of an observatory project in Chile. The new astronomical dataset is the second release of the Dark Energy Camera Plane Survey (DECaPS2). NOIRLab called it “perhaps the largest catalog yet compiled” in a statement on Wednesday.
The camera used optical and near-infrared wavelengths of light to spot stars, star-forming regions, and clouds of gas and dust. “Imagine a group shot of over 3 billion people and every individual is recognizable,” says Debra Fischer of the NSF. “Astronomers will be delving into this detailed portrait of more than 3 billion stars in the Milky Way for decades to come.”
The survey looks at the Milky Way’s disk, which appears as a bright band running across the image. It’s full of stars and dust. There’s so much of both that it can be hard to work out what’s happening. Stars overlap. Dust hides stars. It took careful data processing to sort it all out.
“One of the main reasons for DECaPS2’s success is that we simply pointed to a region with an extraordinarily high density of stars and were careful about identifying sources that appear nearly superimposed,” says a graduate researcher from Harvard University. Andrew Saydjarilead author of a paper about the research published in The Astrophysical Journal this week.
Several billion stars may sound like an insane number, but it’s just a small drop in the galactic bucket. NASA estimates there are at least 100 billion stars in the Milky Way. The new survey covers just 6.5% of the night sky as seen from the southern hemisphere.
DECaPS2 was an epic, multi-year project consisting of 21,400 individual exposures and 10 terabytes of data. NOIRLabs description of the study as a “gigantic tapestry of astronomical data” is appropriate. We have never seen the Milky Way like this before. It’s beautiful and it’s humble.
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