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Wisconsin scientists create 360-degree view of the Milky Way

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A team of Wisconsin scientists has stitched together a dramatic 360-degree portrait of the Milky Way that reveals never-seen-before details of our galaxy.

The new galactic portrait is made up of about 2.5 million infrared images collected by NASA’s orbiting Spitzer Space Telescope over the last decade, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports.

By looking at the sky in infrared light, astronomers can cut through the clouds of interstellar dust, revealing some 200 million new stars and other structures in space that can’t be seen in visible light.

Known as GLIMPSE360, it's an interactive portrait that allows viewers to zero in on specific objects of the Milky Way with a zoom feature, according to the Journal Sentinel. Scientists can now clearly examine the structure of the Milky Way — how many spiral arms it has, where they are and how far out they extend, said Edward Churchwell, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor emeritus of astronomy involved in compiling the new picture.

“We can see stars being born," said Churchwell. "And if we can identify stars in the process of forming, we can start to learn about the physics of how stars are formed. We don’t really understand the details of how stars are born.”

The composite gives scientists some idea of the metabolic rate of the Milky Way, said UW-Madison astronomer Barb Whitney, one of the leaders of the GLIMPSE team. “It tells us how many stars are forming each year.”

The Spitzer Space Telescope was sent into space in 2003, and scientists were only counting on it being useful for 2-1/2 years.

More than 600 research papers already have been published using the data from the infrared galactic survey, Churchwell said.

He figures that the data will keep astronomers busy for many years.

"It's still up there," Churchwell said. "It's still taking data. It's done what we wanted it to do, which is to provide a legacy of data for the astronomical community."

The data collected aboard the space telescope also is the basis for a "citizen science" project, known as the Milky Way Project, which invites members of the public to examine GLIMPSE images to help identify and map the objects that populate our galaxy.

This video from NASA gives an overview of the GLIMPSE360 project:

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