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UW Astronomer Produces Most Detailed Photo Ever Of Another Spiral Galaxy

A University of Washington professor has taken a very unusual picture: It’s the most detailed photograph ever produced of a large spiral galaxy outside of our own. The massive panorama of the Andromeda Galaxy combines about 3,000 images snapped over three years by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

When you look at the night sky, almost every star you see is part of our own galaxy, the Milky Way. Andromeda is our closest big galactic neighbor. But it is still far enough away – more than two million light years – that even through a telescope it looks like a spirally cloud.  

“What’s different about this [picture] is that you can zoom in and zoom in, and zoom in, and zoom in until you can see those hundred million stars popping out at you,” said Julianne Dalcanton, professor of astrophysics at UW. (Here's the high-resolution, zoomable image.)

She led the effort to assemble the image, which she presented this week at the American Astronomical Society’s annual meeting in Seattle.

Scientists now can dig into the super-high-resolution photo and learn new information about how stars form and how galaxies are built.

Dalcanton said she expects astrophysicists to milk this dataset for many years to come. But she said she also hopes it inspires non-scientists, too.

“It’s very, very pretty and I fully expect to see this in dorm room posters and on people’s T-shirts. And I expect to be going into people’s offices over the next decade and seeing it as their screen saver,” she said.

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.