Where Did The Milky Way Images Come From If We Are Inside It?

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It is incredibly difficult to find out what the Milky Way actually looks like. Imagine that you are in the middle of the forest, and you need to map all the trees that are in the forest.

You can easily observe everything that directly surrounds you, but more distant objects are partially or completely hidden. They are difficult to notice or impossible to see at all.

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The Milky Way
The Milky Way

Almost the same task astronomers are facing. One of the first serious attempts to map the Milky Way was made by William and Caroline Herschel at the end of the 18th century.

The Milky Way
William and Caroline Herschel’s Milky Way Diagram

They used a telescope to carefully count the stars in the sky in different directions. Based on their observations, the Herschels created a series of diagrams and a map:

Although it was a very bold attempt, unfortunately, today it seems hopelessly naive. Dark clouds of dust hide almost all the stars outside the solar system.

While dust clouds block all visible optical light, they transmit infrared and radio waves much better.

Therefore, after astronomers realized that they needed infrared and radio telescopes, the first real glimpses of the more distant stars of our galaxy were obtained.

Only in the 1920s, during the Great Debate between astronomers Harlow Shapley and Heber Curtis, the views among members of the astronomical community finally shifted to the fact that the Milky Way is not the whole Universe, but only one of many billions of galaxies.

Usually, all the photos you can find are either fiction-based ones on diagrams or photos of other galaxies, like the pictures above.

The real photos of our galaxy look like this:

The Milky Way
The Milky Way

But even today, with the best telescopes, we still only have a schematic representation of the Milky Way.

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