This is what happens when you shoot a one-billion-pixel camera of incredibly high resolution to space and you are ordered to take a picture of each star you can see.
The image above (and an easier one) -scan version below) was produced by Gaia the spacecraft of the European Space Agency, whose mission is to produce a detailed three-dimensional map of the stars of our galaxy . And it's truly the largest 3D star atlas ever assembled.
The latest map of Gaia (click to find a very good interactive version), published on Wednesday, includes 1.7 billion stars. That's about 700 million more than its last update in 2016. When you look at those stars, you're seeing countless planets, moons, asteroids and comets clinging to their orbits.
This database is not just to make beautiful images. It also contains information on distance, movement and color (useful for determining temperature and age) of approximately 1,300 million stars. It is an atlas in 3D movement of the Milky Way.
Creating a tool of this type is more difficult than you can imagine. Since the Earth constantly moves around the sun, the apparent location of the stars also changes throughout the year and needs to be controlled. For some stars, "the level of precision is equivalent to Earth-bound observers being able to detect a euro coin that lies on the surface of the Moon," ESA says in a press release.
Gaia uses a super-powerful camera and two telescopes to pinpoint the exact location of each star in the sky (making about dozens of observations of each star). Next, it keeps track of information about the brightness, size and temperature of each star.
The Gaia database also includes information on asteroids, nearby galaxies, and surface temperatures of 100 million stars. And astronomers can use it to study how the cosmos moves, make observations about how the galaxy formed and even find new planets.
But the map is not yet complete. It is likely that there are more than 100 billion stars in our galaxy. ESA expects to collect data on 2 billion stars by 2022.
Here you can access the complete database. And here, look for an interactive map of all the stars.
And if you have one of those VR attachments for your smartphone, you can immerse yourself in a 360-degree window in the cosmos, built from the Gaia dataset.
Gaia is not the only project to map the cosmos with absurd details
There are several similar projects that produce dazzling results.
Here is one to really make you feel small: the Sloan Digital Sky Survey III, a digitized atlas of the known universe. The complete survey, which was launched in 2016, traces a total of 1.2 million galaxies in three dimensions. That means it shows not only its locations in the sky, but also its distance from Earth.
Below is an image taken from the survey. Each of these 48,741 points represents a galaxy. Each galaxy is a collection of billions of stars. The stars themselves trap planets, asteroids and possibly even life in their gravitational claws. This image is only one twentieth of the night sky, a mere prick of a window to the universe.
Do you want to feel even smaller? Additional reading