Today's observations suggest that our Milky Way contains hundreds of billions of stars — estimates go as high as 400 billion. If that doesn't make you feel small, then how about this: you can start counting plenty of those in this jaw-dropping 9-billion-pixel image that contains over 84 millions stars.
VISTA, an infrared survey telescope operated by the European Southern Observatory, took the thousands of pictures needed to create this single uber-view that's 108,200 by 81,500 pixels. The raw file is a hefty 24.6 gigabytes.
Beyond being pretty, photos like this allow astronomers and more to better study the stars of our galaxy, and research just published in Astronomy & Astrophysics states that studying the Milky Way's "bulge," which is the higher concentration of stars found near its center, "is a fundamental Galactic component for understanding the formation and evolution of galaxies, in particular our own."
Here's the image larger (click to see it bigger):
You can also zoom around the photo on the ESO's wesbite here.
Milky Way image credit: ESO/VVV Consortium