ESO's Zoomable 0.8 Gigapixel Panoramic Image of the Milky Way

The universe may be too big too big to wrap one's mind around, but the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere has succeeded in distilling the entire Milky Way Galaxy into one breathtaking cosmic image. ESO's Gigagalaxy Zoom project has released a stunning 360-degree panorama of the cosmos surrounding earth as seen with the unaided eye from one of the darkest places on earth.

The first in a series of three images slated for release this month, the 800-million-pixel (or, 0.8 gigapixel) image captures the entire southern and northern celestial sphere. From Earth, we see the galaxy on its edge, cutting a horizontal path across a cosmic backdrop of faraway luminous galaxies and the empty void of space. As such, the image makes it appear that we are viewing the galaxy from outside, though the photos were captured with a Nikon D3 sporting a 50 mm lens from the deserts of Chile and the Canary Islands. Each image required six minutes of exposure, for a collective exposure time of more than 120 hours.

French astrophotographer Serge Brunier collected the photos between August 2008 and February 2009, while fellow Frenchman Frederic Tapissier and a handful of ESO experts processed the 1,200 raw photographs into the seamless panorama, which represents nearly 300 unique fields of view. As the photography was conducted over a series of months, several celestial objects can be seen moving through the galaxy, including a bright green comet. Jupiter and Venus, as well as other planets, are particularly visible.

The Gigagalaxy Zoom project was initiated as part of the International Year of Astonomy 2009. The second image, a 400-million-pixel image of a smaller swath of sky was taken through a hobby telescope by astrophotographer Stephane Guisard and will be released September 21. The third image, exhibiting the power of high-powered professional astronomy, was taken with the Wide Field Imager at the ESO's observatory at La Silla, Chile and will be released September 28.

For a higher resolution look, click here.