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Art, science or both? These beautiful images peal back the layers of reality to show a hidden view of our galaxy, and they could provide insights into the earliest moments of the universe.

Stunningly beautiful images show off The Milky Way's swirling magnetic field

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Wednesday, December 3, 2014, 10:28 AM - Images from space never fail to amaze, those captured by the European Space Agency's Planck spacecraft are always incredible, but they're really outdone themselves with these latest ones.

Planck is a space telescope, orbiting around a stable gravitational point in near Earth known as Lagrange Point 2. From this vantage point, in a 'shady spot' cast by the Earth, it can safely do its job without interference from the Sun's light and heat.

What is that job? 

Planck takes some of the most sensitive measurements of the universe we can make right now. Sensing the microwave radiation given off by the Milky Way Galaxy around us and beyond, the spacecraft has provided us with a look at the very first light produced in the Universe - the Cosmic Microwave Background, or CMB.

Measuring the microwaves of the Milky Way isn't just a way to see past it to the universe beyond, though. Scientists have used these views to plumb the depths of the galaxy, revealing some incredible details that we'd be blind to in any other part of the electromagnetic spectrum.

These latest images - set to be formally published on December 22, but released early by astronomers at the Planck 2014 meeting, in Ferrara, Italy - reveal the swirls and ribbons of our home galaxy's magnetic field in stunning detail.

The Galactic Plane - just 'right of centre' of the central galactic bulge, this view shows the dense dust and stars of the galactic disk, as well as the Carina Nebula (the darkest patch to the right) and dust filament stretching away at the lower left.

Credit: ESA-Planck Collaboration, by Marc-Antoine Miville-Deschenes

The Belt and Shoulders of Orion - the constellation Orion is very familiar to anyone in the northern hemisphere, but this is a view seldom seen by us.

Credit: ESA-Planck Collaboration, by Marc-Antoine Miville-Deschenes

The Large Magellanic Cloud - a galaxy in its own right, this globular cluster is a satellite of the Milky Way, which contains some of the oldest stars in this region of the universe.

Credit: ESA-Planck Collaboration, by Marc-Antoine Miville-Deschenes

What we're seeing in these images are two things:

  1. The temperature of the dust in the galaxy, represented by the vibrant colours, as read by the intensity of the microwave radiation being emitted by the dust, and

  2. The magnetic polarization of the dust, as the tiny magnetic fields of these particles become lined up with the direction of the galactic magnetic field around them, represented by the swirling relief map.

Gathered over a period of just over 4 years, these are the most accurate maps Planck has produced yet. The images aren't just pretty. By closely examining this data, scientists will be able gain even more insight on what was happening in the earliest moments after the Big Bang. Also, it may reveal more about dark matter and dark energy, and it will hopefully help refine the results of the BICEP2 project, which announced the discovery of gravitational waves earlier this year. Data from the Planck telescope initially seemed to refute these findings, showing that it could have simply been dust interfering with BICEP2's results. However, as the New York Times points out, with Planck and BICEP2 teaming up on this, they have a chance to reduce the uncertainties in the BICEP2 data, and possibly still come out with primordial gravitational waves.

The full set of images, spanning nine different regions of the galaxy, are available on the Planck public website (in French).

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