If you want to explore the Milky Way without having to go into space, then look no further than GLIMPSE360, an incredible new interactive website that allows you to take a tour of the milky way with the click of a button. This is all thanks to a team of scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who used over a whopping two million images collected by NASA's Spitzer Space telescope to allow us to be able to do this. This telescope was launched into space in 2003, and is still going strong, though it was only meant to last 2 and a half years.
The images collected were used to generate an amazing 360 degree view the Milky Way, the spiral galaxy within which our solar system lies, looking through a slice of the galactic plane. The Milky Way is approximately 100,000 light years in diameter and contains up to 400 billion stars, and possibly a similar number of planets.
The Spitzer telescope takes infrared pictures of space since interstellar dust obscures images taken using visible light. The results have been incredible; not only have the images provided new information on galactic structure, but more than 200 million objects have now been added to our map of the milky way that were previously unknown. The leader of the group at the U of W-Madison who put these images together, Edward Churchwell, says "We've established beyond the shadow of a doubt that our galaxy has a large bar structure that extends halfway out to the sun's orbit. We know more about where the Milky Way's spiral arms are." Churchwell's group have been compiling and analysing data collected from the Spitzer telescope for over a decade in a project called GLIMPSE (Galactic Legacy Infrared Midplane Survey Extraordinaire).
Alongside giving us new insights into the Milky Way, the results have also raised some puzzling questions. For example, the project revealed that interstellar space is filled with a gas made from complex, aromatic (benzene ring containing) hydrocarbons, suggesting that carbon is far more abundant in space than originally believed. The images are also being used in the Milky Way Project, whereby citizens can dredge through these infrared pictures in order to gain better information on star formation and what lies inside our galaxy. There's evidently going to be a lot more exciting data that can be pulled out from these images to build up an even bigger and comprehensive picture of the Milky Way; it's certainly not over yet.