Mosaic of the Milky Way took 12 years, 1200 hours | Human world

View larger. | Part of JP Metsavainio’s new Milky Way mosaic – 125 degrees of sky from Taurus to Cygnus – 2009 to 2021. Image via JP Metsavainio.

JP Metsavainio is a Finnish astrophotographer who launched his megaproject on March 16, 2021: an impressive mosaic of our galaxy, the Milky Way, spread across the night sky. Metsavainio wrote on his blog:

It took nearly twelve years to collect enough data for this high-resolution mosaic image of the Milky Way. The total exposure time used is around 1250 hours between 2009 and 2021.

He accomplished it all using his own small observatory in Oulu, Finland, with just a 12-inch telescope and photographic equipment. Metsavainio’s Milky Way panorama consists of 234 individual images, each created in its own right as a work of art. Together, these hours translate into an image that is 1.7 gigapixels and 100,000 pixels wide.

Round view of the night sky with labeled stars and constellations, and a tilted rectangle that encloses the Milky Way.

In a region of 125 arc minutes, stretching from the constellation Taurus the Bull to the constellation Cygnus the Swan, it took Finnish astrophotographer JP Metsavainio 12 years to photograph and stitch together a deep and detailed panorama of our galaxy, the Milky Way, stretching across the night sky. Image via JP Metsavainio.

Wide image with nebulae of the Milky Way in orange, blue and some green.

View larger. | The final image of the Milky Way panorama extends into more than 125 degrees of sky. Metsavainio made this photomosaic using special filters, letting only certain wavelengths pass. As a result, the colors that you can see in this image come from the light emitted by 3 ionized elements, that is, elements that have lost one or more electrons in their atoms; hydrogen (H-alpha), sulfur (S II) and oxygen (O III). Image via JP Metsavainio.

Grayscale image of a Milky Way panorama with many outlined squares overlapping each other.

Outlines of the 234 individual images, photographed over a total of 1,250 hours, that Metsavainio used to create his panorama. Image via JP Metsavainio.

Metsavainio told EarthSky how it all started:

I decided to make a large mosaic of the Milky Way over 10 years ago. At the time, I was aware that it would take at least a decade to finish (and the work is still in progress). As a visual artist, the composition of the image means a lot to me. Over the years, I have shot hundreds of individual targets in the Milky Way. Each image taken is a separate work of art. At the same time, I always had in mind the needs of the final great composition. This is like having a short-term plan in action, but at the same time having a long-term plan behind everything.

Black and white photo of a man in a black suit and shirt with his short hair slicked back.

Finnish astrophotographer JP Metsavainio has created a detailed and deep panorama of the Milky Way. Image via JP Metsavainio.

The Metsavainio project has attracted a lot of attention recently, and with good reason. The extreme detail and depth are reminiscent of images from the Hubble Space Telescope.

Composition diagram of a Milky Way mosaic: fewer images are built and merged on the left, forming a final result on the right.

An illustration of how the panorama was created in mosaic over time. Image via JP Metsavainio.

The Metsavainio Observatory is located in the center of his hometown of Oulu on the west coast of Finland and is therefore subject to a fair amount of light pollution. This is the reason why it filters the light and measures the so-called Narrow band emissions; that is, it lets light pass through narrow windows at specific optical wavelengths, at the wavelengths of ionized hydrogen (H-alpha), sulfur, and oxygen (S II and O III).

Metsavainio created these images with art in mind first, but scientifically. He told EarthSky:

I have no scientific ambitions, but my photos meet the rules of the scientific image. They have been used for some scientific purposes before and have that kind of value too. As a visual artist, I like to give people a visual experience, even if they have no idea what they are looking at.

And the dividing line between science and art can be fine at times, especially when it comes to astrophotography. For example, NASA’s Astronomical Image of the Day (APOD) has featured many of the Metsavainium images, explaining the science that can be seen in each (recent examples here and here).

We highly recommend visiting JP Metsavainio’s webpage to dig into a high-resolution version of his Milky Way panorama and the images that comprise it, as well as for more details on how he did this project.

Below are two close-ups of regions in the grand panorama:

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Bow fronts that arch around a region where a star once exploded are visible on the right side of this image. The supernova remnant is called G65.3 + 5.7 and this image required 60 hours of exposure time. The moon in the lower left shows the scale of this image. Image via JP Metsavainio.

Star-studded sky patch in the Milky Way, featuring a gaseous nebula in orange, blue, and white.

The California Nebula, which got its name because it resembles the state of California, is in the lower left of the large panoramic image. The moon (bottom left) shows the scale of this image. Image via JP Metsavainio.

Densely snow-covered observatory in the shape of a domed beige cylinder surrounded by deep snow.

With simple tools, excellent results can be achieved. Metsavainio used this small observatory in the middle of the Finnish city of Oulu to observe the Milky Way. Image via JP Metsavainio.

Bottom line: Finnish astrophotographer JP Metsavainio spent nearly 12 years photographing the Milky Way and piecing together 234 individual frames to form a large panorama of our galaxy.

Source: Milky Way, 12 years, 1250 hours of exposures and 125 x 22 degree sky

Teresa Wiegert


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