Stunning Milky Way Time-Lapse Video: “Ancients”

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
Jan. 25 2014 7:45 AM

Stunning Milky Way Time-Lapse Video: “Ancients”

Milky Way and Venus
The Milky Way and Venus set over the Chilean Atacama Desert.

Photo by Nicholas Buer, from the video

Regular readers know I love me some time-lapse video of the sky. I stumbled across a very cool one recently, and it’s well worth the 2.5 minutes of your time: “Ancients,” by photographer Nicholas Buer, the same man who made “Spirits,” a magnificent video about aurorae. “Ancients,” though, stars a significantly more distant target …

[Make it hi-def and full screen, then watch in awe.]

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Buer filmed this in the Atacama Desert in Chile, one of the darkest sites on Earth. That really shows in the video; the Milky Way is much brighter and more detailed than you usually see in these videos. You can really trace out the dark dust lanes, regions of the galaxy choked with clouds of complex organic molecules that block the light from stars behind them.

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

He also had some excellent timing: Venus was near the galactic center in the sky, so it burns like a beacon against the fainter cosmic light—an illusion to be sure; that galactic glow is the combined might of a hundred billion stars, reduced to a milky sheen by the terrible distances to even the nearest stars.

At the 30-second mark you can see Venus setting below the Milky Way’s central bulge, and an odd white glow around it. That’s zodiacal light, sunlight reflected off tiny particles of dust left behind by comets as they orbit the Sun. The comets responsible have short-period orbits, and stick pretty much to the same orbital plane as the planets. We’re in that plane, so we see it projected as a thick slab in the sky—though due to the geometry of dust scattering the sunlight looks more wedge-shaped.

At 55 seconds the Magellanic Clouds appear, the satellite galaxies to the Milky Way, invisible to most of the Northern Hemisphere. At 1:30 he zooms in on the Large Magellanic Cloud, and I literally gasped when I saw it. The detail is magnificent. That object is about 170,000 light years away, far, far outside our galaxy, but it shows up clearly in the video!

He ends the video with shots of the local geology, and that only makes me want to visit that region even more. I had a chance last year for the inauguration of the wonderful ALMA observatory, but to my chagrin the timing didn’t work out for me. I hope that it didn’t turn out to be one of those once-in-a-lifetime things; from just this video I can tell that Atacama is a place I very much want to see myself.

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