When I was very young, I became fascinated by astronomy. I read books about it and learned as much as I could. And so when I would go out and look at the sky at night, I had a pretty good idea of what I was seeing, at least for a kid. Where I grew up, the sky was dark enough to see numerous stars and that wonderful band across the sky, our own Milky Way galaxy, to which I and all those stars I could see were somehow connected. Since I knew what that band across the sky was and what it represented, I was totally awed by its magnificence and its beauty.
And I miss it. I miss being able to walk outside my house and look up and see it. It somehow comforted me to know it was there, that the Earth, though small in comparison, was part of something so spectacular. These days, though, I live here in Joplin, where the city lights make it impossible to step outside the door and see that beautiful band, our real celestial city, the Milky Way. Thankfully, today there are other ways to see it.
According to National Geographic, this week the European Southern Observatory, located in the Atacama Desert in Chile, released a composite image—187 million pixels—of our galactic plane, an image that took almost three and a half years to produce from more than 700 separate observations. It is called the APEX Telescope Large Area Survey of the Galaxy. The APEX telescope is more than 39 feet in diameter and sits more than three miles above sea level in one of the oldest and driest deserts on the planet, a perfect place to put a telescope, since there are few clouds and almost no light or radio interference.
The amazing image of our galaxy was produced using wavelengths of light that fall between infrared and radio waves and thus reveals details invisible to our parochial eyes. As National Geographic described the image:
It reveals finer details of the galaxy than seen in earlier images, including most of the places where new stars are born—such as the mysterious Galactic Center—and cold regions where dust and gas hover mere fractions of a degree above absolute zero.
Just below is a beautiful 8-minute video of the image, set to music. I urge you to put it on full screen and watch it in a dark room with the music turned up. Just sit there and appreciate who we are in this universe. Our galaxy may have as many as 400 billion suns in it and is some 100,000 light-years in diameter—588,000,000,000,000,000 miles! And our galaxy is just one among what may be 200 billion galaxies out there. So, sit there and appreciate the strange beauty of it all, from its size and composition to the possibility that some other forms of life may be living somewhere in that image, forms of life we will never know. Perhaps above all, appreciate the amazing and inquisitive earthbound minds that desire to and can produce and utilize such unfathomable technology for purposes of peace, for purposes of expanding our knowledge about the universe in which we live, rather than for war and defending and perpetuating religious dogma.