Interactive tool lets you scan all of the Milky Way's billion stars

The stars you see above represent just one tiny selection from an absolutely gargantuan new image of the Milky Way's galactic plane. Combining thousands of images taken over the last two years, it's the ultimate landscape of the night sky.

The new mosaic is the result of ten years of data-gathering by a pair of telescopes, the the UK Infrared Telescope in Hawaii and the Vista telescope in Chile. It combines thousands of images to show about a billion stars all in one image. Both of these are infrared telescopes, which enables them to see through the dust that would otherwise obscure the galactic plane. The image above represents only the tiniest sliver of the overall mosaic, and yet it still contains thousands of stars.

Because the image captures the entire galactic plane, it's incredibly long and thin, making it difficult to see all at once. To that end, the team of British astronomers responsible for the mosaic have created this page, an interactive tool that allows you to explore and zoom in on any part of the mosaic. In an interview with BBC News, University of Edinburgh astronomer Dr. Nick Cross describes the mosaic and its potential applications:

"There are about one billion stars in there - this is more than has been in any other image produced by surveys. When it was first produced, I played with it for hours; it's just stunning. There are many uses for this picture. It will help us really understand the true nature of our galaxy, to see where everything is. Some researchers will use it to find star forming regions; there'll be lots of these along the plane of the galaxy. Finding globular clusters will be another use. These are groups of very old stars that formed right at the beginning of the galaxy. We can study their distribution in this image and that tells us something about how the Milky Way started off. And it will be particularly useful to study anything that is extended. Here you can look at things on the large scale, to understand how they are related to each other; to look at things that might be across multiple images in a catalogue. "

For more, check out BBC News.