The late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have been a great age of exploration. While the tools for past discoveries were ships, compasses and sextants, the tools of the current age have been rockets, satellites and telescopes.
Satellites such as Hipparcos and networks of radio telescopes such as the Very Long Baseline Array have determined precise distance estimates for parts of the Milky Way, and this work will be tremendously enhanced by the GAIA project expected to begin at the end of 2011. Infrared space telescopes such as IRAS, MSX, and Spitzer have pierced through the vast clouds of dust that block our view of much of the Milky Way and have given us stunning views of the mysterious and unknown starscapes that lie beyond. Microwave and millimetre radio dishes have worked tirelessly year after year to map out the giant molecular clouds that form the birthplace of our galaxy's great star associations.
The world's astronomers have worked together to make their research available to all on the Internet, through the huge collection of scientific abstracts and papers at the Astrophysics Data System, the more than seven thousand data catalogs at VizieR, the great directory of almost five million astronomical objects at Simbad and the trillions of bytes of observational data available through the Virtual Observatory.
The results of this exciting research are summarised in four different ways within this website.
The Milky Way Explorer gives you direct access to many of the large sky surveys and shows you the sky as it would appear if you had super sensitive eyes that could detect infrared, microwave and radio frequencies. The Google Map interface makes it easy to navigate across the Milky Way, zooming in to see one nebula or zooming out to view hydrogen loops or huge regions like the Orion or Ophiuchus molecular clouds.
The face-on maps shows the estimated positions of thousands of nebulae, bright stars, clusters, molecular clouds and more as they would appear from a starship hovering above and outside the galaxy.
Our Galactic Region is the first draft of a book about the Milky Way, with a special focus on the region of the galaxy within about 10 thousand parsecs (over 30 thousand light years). It includes the stories of some of the key scientists mapping the Milky Way, a Commentary on the Galactic Plane and a commentary on the whole sky as seen in hydrogen-alpha, the frequency of ionised hydrogen gas.
Finally, images and descriptions of several hundred optically visible HII regions, supernova remnants and other prominent nebulae are available and can be accessed either through the object descriptions available by clicking on the maps, or through image gallery pages. There are five image galleries available. A general gallery shows all of the nebulae described on this website. Special galleries show objects in the Sharpless, Gum and RCW catalogs. You can also view a growing gallery of larger unusual and often beautiful images, Strange New Worlds.
You can read my blog to find out about major changes to the site or important new Milky Way research.