A 10-terabyte image reveals over 3 billion uncharted Milky Way objects

The new Milky Way survey image "is the largest such catalog ever from a single camera."
Chris Young
Gargantuan astronomical data tapestry of the Milky Way.
Gargantuan astronomical data tapestry of the Milky Way.


A new "dark energy" camera in Chile captured a mind-bending image of the galactic plane of the Milky Way. The new image reveals a massive three billion objects that were previously uncharted, according to a press statement.

The image, taken by the Dark Energy Camera (DECam) on the NSF's NOIRLab’s Víctor M. Blanco 4-meter Telescope at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Chile, is viewable online. Anyone can zoom in on the ten terabytes of data made up of 21,400 individual exposures.

A massive Milky Way survey

The impressive new image covers 13,000 times the area of the full moon viewed from Earth and contains an immense number of newly-discovered stars, nebulae, and other space objects.

"We simply pointed at a region with an extraordinarily high density of stars and were careful about identifying sources that appear nearly on top of each other," explained Andrew Saydjari, a graduate student at Harvard University and lead author of a paper detailing the new observation in the Astrophysical Journal Supplement. "Doing so allowed us to produce the largest such catalog ever from a single camera, in terms of the number of objects observed."

The new image is the second data release of the Dark Energy Camera Plane Survey (DECaPS2), which was compiled over two years of observations of the plane of the Milky Way observed from the southern hemisphere. The observations were made in near-infrared wavelengths, much like the James Webb Space Telescope, which is able to peer through dust clouds and unveil the stellar nurseries hiding beneath.

"This is quite a technical feat. Imagine a group photo of over three billion people and every single individual is recognizable," said Debra Fischer, division director of Astronomical Sciences at the National Science Foundation (NSF). "Astronomers will be poring over this detailed portrait of more than three billion stars in the Milky Way for decades to come."

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Shedding light on the mysterious force of dark energy

The DECam was built to carry out the Dark Energy Survey, which was conducted between 2013 and 2019. The Dark Energy Survey was, as the name implies, proposed in order to shed new light on dark energy, which is thought to be responsible for the accelerating expansion of the universe.

DECam also recently produced a stunning 100-megapixel image of two galaxies interacting with each other and also helped astronomers detect a potentially hazardous 0.9-mile-wide asteroid hiding in the Sun's glare. The latest image is now being combined with data from other telescope surveys — including PanSTARRS 1 — in a bid to develop a 360º panoramic view of the Milky Way's disk.

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