The Milky Way Shines over an Australian Lighthouse [PIC]

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
Dec. 2 2012 8:00 AM

The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean

Yesterday, I went all sciencey on a gorgeous picture of M83, a nearby spiral galaxy. What I didn’t mention, though, is that the galaxy we live in—the Milky Way—is pretty similar. It’s a flattened disk with spiral arms, a central bulge of stars, and lots of stars and dust. M83 just so happens to be oriented so we see it face-on, providing us with the spectacular view I described in that post.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

But we live inside the Milky Way, so our view of our own galaxy is different. Nothing illustrates that better than a nice time exposure of the night sky, so here’s one of surpassing beauty for you:

Milky Way and lighthouse, photo by Mike Selway
The Milky Way over Cape Leveque. Click to enaustralenate.

Image credit: Mike Salway, used by permission.

Advertisement

This lovely shot was taken by Mike Salway, an amateur astronomer and photographer living in Australia. He shot this at Cape Leveque in northwestern Australia, on the coast of the Indian Ocean. It’s a single 30 second exposure, which was enough to show the Milky Way without overexposing the lighthouse. I like the way the tree reaches in and how the branches are lit. It’s funny how it looks like the Milky Way is coming out of the lighthouse.

That band of light is the combined glow of millions if not billions of stars in our galaxy. Because the Milky Way is a flat disk, and we’re inside it, we see it as a stream across the sky. In the center of our galaxy is the bulge, a roughly spherical mass of perhaps 20 billion stars, and you can see it plain as day in that picture! Littering the plane of the disk are vast clouds of opaque dust (I talk about this in the M83 post as well) that block our view of the stars behind them and leave a dark lane across the Milky Way (and that nifty X pattern right in the center of the bulge).

Salway also took another fantastic picture of the Milky Way, this time at the beach itself:

Milky Way over the beach at Cape Leveque. Click to embiggen.
Milky Way over the beach at Cape Leveque.

Image credit: Mike Salway.

Wow. In this one you can see some famous stars like Alpha Centauri (the bright orange one just to the right of center, sitting in the middle of the plane of the Milky Way) and Beta Centauri just above it. A bit farther out along the galaxy’s disk you can see a dark splotch: That’s the Coal Sack, a cloud of dust about 30 light years or so across and about 600 light years away. Immediately above and to the right of the Coal Sack is the constellation of Crux, the Southern Cross. Salway also has a shot of the same scene but with a very bright shooting star called a fireball blazing across. Pretty cool.

It’s amazing what you can see in a photo that’s just half a minute long. It helps, of course, to have the natural beauty of Australia in the foreground and the aggregated might of a massive galaxy in the background.

I sometimes like to think of the Milky Way as a city, with a hustling downtown area toward the center (the bulge) and the spiral arms as the suburbs. Happily for us, we live in a pretty nice part of town that has a fantastic view.

[Note: I stole the title of this post from the title of Carl Sagan's first episode of "Cosmos." It seemed appropriate.]

TODAY IN SLATE

Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

The Congressional Republican Digging Through Scientists’ Grant Proposals

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Whole Foods Is Desperate for Customers to Feel Warm and Fuzzy Again

The XX Factor

I’m 25. I Have $250.03.

My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I’m 25. I Have $250.03. My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.
Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

George Tiller’s Murderer Threatens Another Abortion Provider, Claims Free Speech

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 3:13 PM Why Countries Make Human Rights Pledges They Have No Intention of Honoring
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 4:33 PM Walmart Is Killing the Rest of Corporate America in Solar Power Adoption
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 3:03 PM Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 1:47 PM The Best Way to Fry an Egg
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 21 2014 4:14 PM Planet Money Uncovers One Surprising Reason the Internet Is Sexist
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.