When you look up at the stars, you are limited by the spectrum your eyes can see. What would you see if you could tour the galazy through infrared eyes?
That question has been partially answered using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. This space telescope was launched in 2003 and has been imaging stars by collecting infrared light. Part of Spitzer’s mission was imaging the plane of our Milky Way galaxy through a project known as GLIMPSE (Galactic Legacy Mid-Plane Survey Extraordinaire). Over two million images were taken of this portion of the night sky at varying infrared wavelengths. These images have been stitched together to make one large, 20-gigapixel panoramic image.
Now you can tour this image online using NASA’s GLIMPSE360 interactive viewer. This allows you a 360° view of the galaxy’s spiral arms and core at the click of your mouse. This virtual exploration is made possible using Microsoft’s WorldWide Telescope visualization software. It allows you to click and drag to change the view or zoom in or out using your mouse wheel.
A small slider in the lower right-hand corner allows you to dim the image to see what the galaxy looks like in the normal visual spectrum. This illustrates why infrared imaging is important. Most of the ‘glare’ you see when looking towards the core is caused by light scattering off dust. Most of this dust is invisible to infrared and we can see what is beyond. Occasionally, this dust gets heated up like when a star is forming. In infrared, these spots will shine brightly. Infrared imaging has been a great boost to our understanding of what makes the universe tick.