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NASA Releases Panoramic Image of the Milky Way Galaxy (PHOTO)

Space may be the final frontier, but NASA has made it so you do not need a spaceship to tour the Galaxy, thanks to a panoramic photo of the Milky Way.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) announced Thursday the release of a 20-gigapixel mosaic using Microsoft's WorldWide Telescope visualization platform. The image may only be a mere three percent of the sky above us, but it also captures half of the Milky Way's stars.

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Thanks to the Galactic Legacy Mid-Plane Survey Extraordinaire project, (GLIMPSE), the interactive image can be seen online HERE. You can also CLICK HERE to download hi-res images.

Milky Way Galaxy
(Photo : NASA/JPL-Caltech) An artist's interpretation of the Milky Way Galaxy based on ESO VISTA survey telescope data.
The stunning image is made up of more than two million infrared snapshots compiled over the past 10 years, courtesy of NASA's Spitzer Telescope.

"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 the news release. "Instead, we've created a digital viewer that anyone, even astronomers, can use."

NASA sent Spitzer into space in 2003 and, while taking all sorts of photos, it has given scientists data on everything from asteroids to remote galaxies. In all, Spitzer has devoted 172 days, 4,142 hours, to taking infrared photos of the Milky Way Galaxy's plane. For the first time, those photos have been compiled into one image and released to the public.

"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 (UWM), said in the release. "We are mapping the placement of the spiral arms and tracing the shape of the galaxy."

Our solar system sits toward the edge of one of the Milky Way's spiral arms. The galaxy on the whole is a flat spiral disk.

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

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