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Starts With A Bang

The Milky Way’s nearest galaxy, as seen through amateur eyes

Professional astronomy images are the gold standard. But this Large Magellanic Cloud composite is the amateur community's best image ever.
amateur astronomy
This gorgeous image of the Large Magellanic Cloud is a wide-field view that’s superior to any professional image or mosaic taken of the same region of sky. With a total of 1060 hours of observational time, the details and extent of the gas revealed supersedes any professional view of the same entire region of sky. (Credit: Ciel Austral: J.-C. Cannone, P. Berhnard, D. Chaplain, N. Outters & L. Bourgon)
Key Takeaways
  • Just ~170,000 light-years away lies the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way.
  • Because of its small size and proximity to our massive galaxy, it's undergoing a massive burst of star-formation: the most intense one in the entire Local Group.
  • With over 1,000 hours dedicated to observing this one object, this image, created as a composite solely by amateurs, is the greatest amateur astronomy image of all-time.

The Universe is full of astronomical wonders, but it’s up to humanity to observe and analyze them.

The Large (top right) and Small (lower left) Magellanic Clouds are visible in the southern skies, and helped guide Magellan on his famous voyage some 500 years ago. In reality, the LMC is located some 160-165,000 light-years away, with the SMC slightly farther at 198,000 light-years. (Credit: ESO/S. Brunier)

The key factors determining what we can reveal are resolution, light-gathering power, and the wavelengths filters we choose.

This photo of the Hubble Space telescope being deployed, on April 25. 1990, was taken by the IMAX Cargo Bay Camera (ICBC) mounted aboard the space shuttle Discovery. It has been operational for 29 years, and has not been serviced since 2009. With a 2.4-meter diameter mirror, it gathers as much light in 1 minute as a 160-mm (6.3″) telescope would require 3 hours and 45 minutes to gather. (Credit: NASA/Smithsonian Institution/Lockheed Corporation)

Professionals have larger, more powerful telescopes with superior instruments, but amateurs have the advantage of time.

This view of the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) was taken by the Digitized Sky Survey: a professional survey using a variety of telescopes comprising the entire sky. The small, high-resolution inset is a view of a particular globular cluster’s stars that is itself a satellite of the LMC. This professional image has less information and fewer details than the amateur mosaic composed by the Ciel Austral team. (Credit: NASA, ESA, A. Riess (STScI/JHU), and Palomar Digitized Sky Survey)

Observing an object for four times as long gathers as much light as a telescope twice as large.

The cluster RMC 136 (R136) in the Tarantula Nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud, is home to the most massive stars known. R136a1, the greatest of them all, is over 250 times the mass of the Sun. While professional telescopes are ideal for teasing out high-resolution details such as these stars in the Tarantula Nebula, wide-field views are better with the types of long-exposure times only available to amateurs. (Credit: ESO/P. Crowther/C.J. Evans)

This is the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC): the closest large galaxy to our own.

amateur astronomy
The red-green-blue color version of the 1060-hour observation taken by the Ciel Austral team of amateur astronomers. To gather the same amount of light as is contained in this image, the Hubble Space Telescope would require almost 5 hours of observing time, and could never (with its current setup and instrumentation) obtain a wide-field view such as this one. (Credit: Ciel Austral: J.-C. Cannone, P. Berhnard, D. Chaplain, N. Outters & L. Bourgon)

It’s the local group’s 4th largest galaxy, located just 160,000 light-years away.

Our Local Group of galaxies is dominated by Andromeda and the Milky Way, but there’s no denying that Andromeda is the biggest, the Milky Way is #2, Triangulum is #3, and the LMC is #4. At just 160,000 light-years away, it’s by far the closest among the top 10+ galaxies to our own. (Credit: Andrew Z. Colvin/Wikimedia Commons)

It’s huge from our perspective, spanning 5° across: 10 times the full Moon’s diameter.

The Large Magellanic Cloud is home to the closest supernova of the last century. The pink regions here are not artificial, but are signals of ionized hydrogen and active star formation, likely triggered by gravitational interactions and tidal forces. Note how much detail is absent from a typical long-exposure amateur image like this, as compared with the level of detail teased out of the Ciel Austral team’s work. (Credit: Jesús Peláez Aguado)

Equipped with a 160-mm (6.3″) telescope, a team of amateur astronomers constructed a record 204,000,000 pixel image of the LMC.

This tiny region of the large mosaic constructed by the Ciel Austral team focuses in on the central area of the LMC, but encompasses only 0.5% of the entire mosaic. Note how much detail is still visible here, in the red-green-blue color space. (Credit: Ciel Austral: J.-C. Cannone, P. Berhnard, D. Chaplain, N. Outters & L. Bourgon)

With a total of 1060 hours of observation time, 620 GB of data were synthesized in creating this mosaic.

An overlapping region of space to the last one shown, this is nearly the same field-of-view (0.5% of the entire mosaic) but with a set of filters that highlights the presence of hydrogen, sulfur, and ionized oxygen. Note the gas and plasma of the LMC extends far beyond where the visible stars are located. (Credit: Ciel Austral: J.-C. Cannone, P. Berhnard, D. Chaplain, N. Outters & L. Bourgon)

The narrow-wavelength filters allowed the identification of hydrogen, sulfur, and oxygen, plus red/green/blue color.

A large section of the Tarantula Nebula, the largest star-forming region in the Local Group, imaged by the Ciel Austral team. At top, you can see the presence of hydrogen, sulfur, and oxygen, which reveals the rich gas and plasma structure of the LMC, while the lower view shows an RGB color composite, revealing reflection and emission nebulae amidst the young, newly-formed stars. (Credit: Ciel Austral: J.-C. Cannone, P. Berhnard, D. Chaplain, N. Outters & L. Bourgon)

The mosaic includes the Tarantula Nebula: the largest star-forming region in the entire local group.

Even far away from the main plane of the galaxy, where the greatest numbers of stars are located, the element filters (top) and the RGB colors (bottom) still reveal gas, dust, reflection and emission features, as well as a variety of elements present. The LMC is one of the most actively star-forming galaxies in the nearby Universe, and regions such as this put that star-formation on display. (Credit: Ciel Austral: J.-C. Cannone, P. Berhnard, D. Chaplain, N. Outters & L. Bourgon)

Ciel Austral now holds the longest-exposure record for amateur astronomy.

Mostly Mute Monday tells an astronomical story in images, visuals, and no more than 200 words. Talk less; smile more.

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