Deep dive into the dusty Milky Way

A still picture from an animation of the build up of dust looking out from the Earth into the Milky Way galaxy
A still from the new animation showing the cumulative build-up of dust looking from Earth’s local neighbourhood to around 13,000 lightyears towards the centre of the Milky Way.

An animated dive into the dusty Milky Way reveals the outlines of our galaxy taking shape as we look out further and further from Earth.

Based on new data from an interactive tool that exploits data from the European Space Agency’s Gaia mission and other space science data sets, astronomers have created an animation to model dust in the Milky Way. The work was presented this week at the National Astronomy Meeting (NAM 2022) at the University of Warwick.

The animation shows the cumulative build-up of dust looking from Earth’s local neighbourhood to ~13000 lightyears towards the galactic centre – around 10% of the overall distance across the Milky Way. Close by, dust swirls all around but, further out, the concentration of dust along the galactic plane becomes clear. Two ‘windows’, one above and one below the galactic plane, are also revealed.

“Dust clouds are related to the formation and death of stars, so their distribution tells a story of how structures formed in the galaxy and how the galaxy evolves,” said Nick Cox, coordinator of the EXPLORE project which is developing the tools. “The maps are also important for cosmologists in revealing regions where there is no dust and we can have a clear, unobstructed view out of the Milky Way to study the Universe beyond, such as to make Deep Field observations with Hubble or the new James Webb Space Telescope.”

The tools used to create the animation combine data from the Gaia mission and the 2MASS All Sky Survey. The tools are part of a suite of applications designed to support studies of stars and galaxies, as well as lunar exploration, and have been developed through funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Programme.

“State-of-the-art machine learning and visual analytics have the power to greatly enhance scientific return and discovery for space science missions, but their use is still relatively novel in the field of astronomy,” said Albert Zijlstra, of the University of Manchester and the EXPLORE project.  “With a constant stream of new data, such as the recent third release of Gaia data in June 2022, we have an increasing wealth of information to mine – beyond the scope of what humans could process in a lifetime. We need tools like the ones we are developing for EXPLORE to support scientific discovery, such as by helping us to characterise properties within the data, or to pick out the most interesting or unusual features and structures.”

Caption: Animation showing the cumulative build-up of dust looking from Earth’s local neighbourhood to around 13,000 lightyears towards the centre of the Milky Way. Credit: EXPLORE/ACRI-ST/GEPI


Media contacts

Dr Robert Massey
Royal Astronomical Society
Mob: +44 (0)7802 877699

Cait Cullen
Royal Astronomical Society


Science contacts

Nick Cox
Coordinator, EXPLORE Project

Prof. Albert Zijlstra
University of Manchester


Further Information

Updated Gaia-2MASS 3D maps of Galactic interstellar dust, R. Lallement, J.L. Vergely, C. Babusiaux, and N.L.J. Cox. A&A, Volume 661, May 2022.


Innovative Scientific Data Exploration and Exploitation Applications for Space Sciences (EXPLORE) has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 101004214.

The six scientific data applications developed by EXPLORE are:

G-Arch: Galactic Archaeology
G-Tomo: Interstellar 3D tomography of dust and gas in the Galaxy
S-Phot: Stars and their blue infrared colour excess: signs of activity and circumstellar material
S-Disco: Spectral discovery of stars
L-Explo: Global multi-scale compositional higher-level products for the lunar surface
L-Hex: Human lunar exploration landing site characterisation and support

EXPLORE is a consortium of eight beneficiaries:

ACRI-ST (France):
Tel Aviv University (Israel):
Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur (France):
University of Manchester (UK):
Jacobs University (Germany):
KNOW Center Graz (Austria:
Dill Faulkes Educational Trust (UK):
adwäisEO (Luxembourg):

Dissemination for EXPLORE is supported by the Europlanet Media Centre:

Follow the hashtag #ExplorePlatform

About NAM 2022

The NAM 2022 conference is principally sponsored by the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and the University of Warwick. Keep up with the latest conference news on Twitter.

About the Royal Astronomical Society

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organises scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognises outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 4,000 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.

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About the Science and Technology Facilities Council

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is part of UK Research and Innovation – the UK body which works in partnership with universities, research organisations, businesses, charities, and government to create the best possible environment for research and innovation to flourish. STFC funds and supports research in particle and nuclear physics, astronomy, gravitational research and astrophysics, and space science and also operates a network of five national laboratories, including the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and the Daresbury Laboratory, as well as supporting UK research at a number of international research facilities including CERN, FERMILAB, the ESO telescopes in Chile and many more.

STFC's Astronomy and Space Science programme provides support for a wide range of facilities, research groups and individuals in order to investigate some of the highest priority questions in astrophysics, cosmology and solar system science. STFC's astronomy and space science programme is delivered through grant funding for research activities, and also through support of technical activities at STFC's UK Astronomy Technology Centre and RAL Space at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. STFC also supports UK astronomy through the international European Southern Observatory and the Square Kilometre Array Organisation.

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About the University of Warwick

The University of Warwick is one of the world’s leading research institutions, ranked in the UK’s top 10 and world top 80 universities. Since its foundation in 1965 Warwick has established a reputation of scientific excellence, through the Faculty of Science, Engineering and Medicine (which includes WMG and the Warwick Medical School).

Submitted by Robert Massey on Fri, 15/07/2022 - 11:28