Milky Way Mosaic

This image, a snapshot of our Milky Way galaxy, is part of a massive 360-degree mosaic of the entire galaxy.  (Photos: NASA/JPL-Caltech/GLIMPSE Team)

A new 360-degree view of the Milky Way allows astronomy buffs to explore the galaxy in a comprehensive new way.

Scientists with NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope have created a zoomable mosaic crafted from more than 2 million infrared photos taken during the past 10 years. The 20-gigapixel image represents about 3 percent of the sky, but it encompasses more than half of the galaxy's stars, according to NASA representatives. The new image is also the sharpest infrared panorama of the galaxy ever created, NASA officials said.

"If we actually printed this out, we'd need a billboard as big as the Rose Bowl Stadium to display it," Robert Hurt, an imaging specialist at NASA's Spitzer Space Science Center in Pasadena, Calif., said in a statement. "Instead, we’ve created a digital viewer that anyone, even astronomers, can use." [See more photos of the infrared universe from Spitzer]

Much of the Milky Way mosaic was created using data from the Galactic Legacy Mid-Plane Survey Extraordinaire project (called GLIMPSE), and the mosaic image is hosted by Microsoft’s WorldWide Telescope visualization platform. You can explore the mosaic via Spitzer Space Telescope website. The platform also provides a second viewer that directs observers to special areas of interest in the large mosaic.

By analyzing the GLIMPSE data, scientists have found that the Milky Way is actually larger than previously expected, Spitzer officials said. The images beamed down from the space telescope are also helping scientists understand more about star formation and the outer regions of the Milky Way. Spitzer can spot faint stars on the outskirts of the galaxy.

"There are a whole lot more lower-mass stars seen now with Spitzer on a large scale, allowing for a grand study," Barbara Whitney, co-leader of the GLIMPSE team, said in a statement. "Spitzer is sensitive enough to pick these up and light up the entire 'countryside' with star formation."

Stars through dust in Milky Way

Spitzer, launched to space in 2003, has spent a total of 172 days taking pictures of the disk of the Milky Way, NASA officials said. Spitzer's infrared cameras allow it to cut through dust in the galaxy, bringing objects into sharper focus.

"Spitzer is helping us determine where the edge of the galaxy lies," Ed Churchwell, co-leader of the GLIMPSE team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in a statement. "We are mapping the placement of the spiral arms and tracing the shape of the galaxy."

Scientists working with the space telescope previously made a 130-degree view of the galaxy, but the new 360-degree mosaic will help direct researchers using NASA's James Webb Space Telescope to find interesting sites of star-formation, Spitzer officials said. The JWST, scheduled for launch in 2018, will be able to make event more detailed infrared observations of the Milky Way.

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This story was originally written for SPACE.com and has been republished with permission here. Copyright 2014 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company.