A Finnish Astrophotographer Spent 12 Years Creating a 1.7 Gigapixel Panoramic Photo of the Entire Milky Way

In the final, cli­mac­tic scene of Japan­ese nov­el­ist Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Coun­try, the Milky Way engulfs the pro­tag­o­nist — an aes­thete who keeps him­self detached from the world, a uni­ver­sal per­spec­tive over­tak­ing an insignif­i­cant indi­vid­ual.

We now know the Milky Way itself to be a minus­cule part of the whole, just one of 100 to 200 bil­lion galax­ies. But until Edwin Hub­ble’s obser­va­tions in 1924, it was thought to con­tain all the stars in exis­tence.

The Milky Way-as-uni­verse is a pow­er­ful image, and cer­tain­ly more com­pre­hen­si­ble than the uni­verse as astronomers cur­rent­ly under­stand it. Its vast­ness can’t be com­pressed into a sym­bol­ic form like the via lactea, “Milky Way,” or as the Greeks called it, galak­tikos kýk­los, “milky cir­cle.” Andy Brig­gs sum­ma­rizes just a few of the ancient myths and leg­ends:

To the ancient Arme­ni­ans, it was straw strewn across the sky by the god Vahagn. In east­ern Asia, it was the Sil­very Riv­er of Heav­en. The Finns and Esto­ni­ans saw it as the Path­way of the Birds.… Both the Greeks and the Romans saw the star­ry band as a riv­er of milk. The Greek myth said it was milk from the breast of the god­dess Hera, divine wife of Zeus. The Romans saw the riv­er of light as milk from their god­dess Ops.

A barred spi­ral galaxy spin­ning around a “galac­tic bulge” with an emp­ty cen­ter, a “mon­strous black hole,” notes Space.com, “bil­lions of times as mas­sive as the sun”… the Milky Way remains an awe­some sym­bol for a uni­verse too vast for us to hold in our minds.

Wit­ness, for exam­ple, the just-released image fur­ther up, a 1.7 gigapix­el panoram­ic pho­to of the Milky Way, from Tau­rus to Cygnus, 100,000 pix­els wide, pieced togeth­er from 234 pan­els by Finnish astropho­tog­ra­ph­er J‑P Met­savainio, who began the project all the way back in 2009. “I can hear music in this com­po­si­tion,” he writes at his site, “from high sparks and bub­bles at left to deep and mas­sive sounds at right.”

Over 12 years, and around 1250 hours of expo­sure, Michael Zhang writes at Petapix­el, Met­savainio “focused on dif­fer­ent areas and objects in the Milky Way, shoot­ing stitched mosaics of them as indi­vid­ual art­works.” As he began to knit the galac­tic clouds of stars and gasses togeth­er into a Pho­to­shop panora­ma, he dis­cov­ered a “com­plex image set which is part­ly over­lap­ping with lots of unim­aged areas between and around frames.” Over the years, he filled in the gaps, shoot­ing the “miss­ing data.” He describes his equip­ment and process in detail, for those flu­ent in the tech­ni­cal jar­gon. The rest of us can stare in silent won­der at more of Metsavainio’s work on his web­site (where you can also pur­chase prints) and Face­book, and let our­selves be over­tak­en by awe.

via Petapix­el and Kot­tke

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

NASA Releas­es a Mas­sive Online Archive: 140,000 Pho­tos, Videos & Audio Files Free to Search and Down­load

How Sci­en­tists Col­orize Those Beau­ti­ful Space Pho­tos Tak­en By the Hub­ble Space Tele­scope

Earth­rise, Apol­lo 8’s Pho­to of Earth from Space, Turns 50: Down­load the Icon­ic Pho­to­graph from NASA

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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