To the most of us, the Milky Way – the galaxy that contains our Solar System – is a mysterious, outer-worldly phenomenon. From an earthly standpoint, it simply appears as a faintly visible, glowing band, composed of a blur of non-distinguishable stars. A new series of maps, however, is quickly changing this perspective. They offer us an exclusive look into the unknown, an expanse we only know to consist of at least 100 billion planets and 200 – 400 billion stars.
The maps are largely based on observations by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Planck space observatory, and depict the diversity of the Milky Way’s features – from its magnetic fields to its gas and dust particles. The images are extremely detailed and showcase four distinctive color signals (red for dust, yellow for gas, green for high energy particles and blue for magnetic field), which all come together to create an encompassing, mosaic style map.
Photo Courtesy of ESA/NASA/JPL-Caltech
In order to capture these stunning images, the ESA’s $795 million Planck spacecraft revolved around Earth for four years – from 2009 to 2013 – soaking up leftover light from the Big Bang, known as the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB).
According to Charles Lawrence, the U.S. project scientist for the mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, “Planck can see the old light from our universe’s birth, gas and dust in our own galaxy, and pretty much everything in between, either directly or by its effect on the old light. ”
By doing so, researchers hope to be able to collect data that would essentially permit them to look back in time – 370,000 years after the Big Bang.
“The cosmic microwave background light is a traveler from far away and long ago,” states Lawrence “When it arrives, it tells us about the whole history of our universe.”
Today, the study of CMB continues to help scientists answer questions about our origins. For example, when did the first stars form? And how?
Fortunately, the Planck can also answer that question. According to new, groundbreaking data collected by the spacecraft, stars are actually much younger than previously thought: 100 million years younger to be exact.