The Cat's Paw Nebula. Credit: NASA/ESO/DSS2 Do you lack the time and funds for a fancy spring break getaway to some tropical clime? Well, NASA has the perfect intergalactic trip package for you. From the comforts of your desk chair, you can venture thousands upon thousands of light years into the Milky Way galaxy and return before your lunch break is over. NASA’s Spitzer telescope spent the past decade snapping two million infrared photographs of our galaxy to stitch together a massive 360-degree panorama of the Milky Way. It’s the most detailed infrared panorama of our home galaxy ever made, and was derived from the GLIMPSE360 project. Our galaxy is a flat, spiral disk about 100,000 light years in diameter. The GLIMPSE panorama only includes a small sliver of the sky — about 3 percent — but includes more than half of the stars in the Milky Way, which is due to our galaxy’s pancake shape.
Looking Around the Galaxy
When you take time to explore the panorama, you can find distant galaxies and areas of star formation. You’ll also notice that our galaxy is riddled with bubbles. These structures are cavities around massive stars, which blast wind and radiation into their surroundings. GLIMPSE also added navigation shortcuts so you can skip to popular destinations like Cat's Paw Nebula, Canis Major and the galactic center (where a massive black hole resides). However, the GLIMPSE data aren’t all for show. The data have helped astronomers create precise star maps of the Milky Way’s inner arms. The data will also guide NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope to areas of star formation, where it will make even more detailed observations. The GLIMPSE panorama and Spitzer telescope mission are described in more detail in the video below. While your friends and coworkers may tout their newly bronzed skin, you can brag about your tromp through the dark, unexplored backcountry of our galaxy where some of the faintest stars exist. Subsequently, your friends and family may suggest you take an actual vacation.