It’s four times sharper than any other image of our galaxy!
The Atacama Pathfinder Experiment telescope (APEX) located in Chile’s Atacama region sits at 5100 meters above sea level, one of the highest observation points on Earth, and is 39 feet (12 meters) in diameter.
It has just recently completed the APEX Telescope Large Area Survey of the Galaxy (ATLASGAL) and has released a gorgeous image to mark the occasion. The APEX telescope has mapped the entire galactic plane visible from the southern hemisphere, and it is the sharpest map ever made. A zoomable version of the image is available on the European Southern Observatory (ESO) webiste.
The red in the image comes from the APEX data at a wavelength of 0.87 millimeters, whereas the blue sections are shorter infrared wavelengths provided by the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope as part of the GLIMPSE survey and the “fainter extended red structures” are from European Space Agency's Planck satellite.
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The APEX telescope, operated by the ESO, is a collaboration between the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, the Onsala Space Observatory, and ESO. It is the largest submillimeter-wavelength telescope — operating at wavelengths between infrared and radio waves — in the southern hemisphere.
According to the ESO, “Submillimetre astronomy opens a window into the cold, dusty and distant Universe, but the faint signals from space are heavily absorbed by water vapour in the Earth's atmosphere.” In order to detect the minuscule changes in temperature, each of its thermometers is cooled to -459.13 degrees Fahrenheit (272.85 degrees Celsius), just barely above absolute zero.
What’s the purpose of mapping the Milky Way in this manner—other than creating an extraordinary image that is? The Smithsonian explains that the pockets of cold dense gas that APEX is observing are where stars are born:
“When stellar gas and dust gets really cold, it clumps together and begins to collapse under its own weight. Those collapsing lumps of dust and gas eventually turn into stars.”
The collected data can point towards areas that could be interesting for future research.
I’m tempted to print out this image and stick it to my wall to remind me of the beauty of space. But, if you’re looking for other interesting images, NASA released a whole set of retro space travel posters just a couple of weeks ago and they are free to download.