TheSpaceWriter_2Date: April 29, 2009


Title: The Big Picture

Podcaster: Carolyn Collins Petersen

Link: Loch Ness Productions:

Description: One of the most significant images in astronomy hangs on permanent display at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, California. It’s called the Big Picture and this podcast takes you on an audio exploration of this image of the universe in the direction of the Virgo Cluster of galaxies.

MUSIC FROM: Double Eclipse, and background soundtrack cuts by GEODESIUM ( Soundtrack production: Mark C. Petersen

Bio: Carolyn Collins Petersen is a science writer and show producer for Loch Ness Productions, a company that creates astronomy documentaries and other materials. She works with planetariums, science centers, and observatories on products that explain astronomy and space science to the public. Her most recent projects were the Griffith Observatory astronomy exhibits in Los Angeles and the California’s Altered State climate change exhibits for San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences. She has co-authored several astronomy books, written many astronomy articles, and is currently working on a new documentary show for fulldome theaters, a vodcast series for MIT’s Haystack Observatory, and a podcast series for the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

Today’s Sponsor: This episode of 365 Days of Astronomy is sponsored by Loch Ness Productions, a unique multimedia production company specializing in cosmically creative content and space music for planetarium and fulldome theaters worldwide. Loch Ness Productions also works with exhibit designers, observatories, science institutions and publishers to bring a love of astronomy, Earth science, and space science to audiences everywhere. On the web at


Hi. I’m Carolyn Collins Petersen, The Spacewriter.
Today we’re taking a cosmic road trip out to the distant universe — by way of Southern California.

It starts in Los Angeles, at the Griffith Observatory. This famous Art Deco design building is one of the city’s best-known landmarks. From its perch in the hills of Griffith Park, the observatory looks so distinctive that its director, Doctor Ed Krupp, often refers to it as the “hood ornament” of Los Angeles.

You can spend an entire day at Griffith — marveling at exhibits about skygazing, the history of astronomy, solar astronomy, the creation of stars and galaxies, and much more. You can also see a planetarium show, and in the evening, look through a telescope.

At some point during your visit, you’re going to find yourself in a very special underground room called the Gunther Depths of Space. One wall of this room is covered by the most majestic view of deep space you’ll ever see. It’s called The Big Picture.

At a hundred and fifty-two feet long and twenty feet high, the Big Picture is the largest astronomical image in the world.

When you stand before the Big Picture, you are immediately drawn in by its size and complexity. You’re looking at images of millions of objects. For example, there are hundreds of thousands of stars and about a million galaxies–all part of the nearby universe. Nearly a thousand quasars define the more distant universe. And, there are hundreds of asteroids and at least one comet, all part of our immediate universe.

The Big Picture shows an area of the sky in the constellation Virgo that is 2 degrees wide and 15.2 degrees long; yet, it covers less than a thousandth of the entire celestial sphere. The astonishing thing about this view is — if you hold your extended index finger out — about a foot away in front of your eye — it would block out the entire area of sky captured in the Big Picture.

The view looks out almost straight up from the plane of the Milky Way Galaxy — through a spot where there are very few bright stars. This lets us see directly into the region of space populated by distant galaxies and quasars.

When you look at the Big Picture, you are looking at a flat version of a small part of our three-dimensional universe. The stars, galaxies, quasars, asteroids and comet in the Big Picture all extend through an immense region of space. Each object lies at a different distance from us.

Imagine if you could leave Earth, and travel out through the Big Picture — across millions and millions of light-years of space.

You would first pass through the solar system and then, through the starfields of our own Milky Way Galaxy.

Beyond the Milky Way, you would find yourself traveling across an immense gap, tens of millions of light-years deep. The fuzzy patches of light you see are distant galaxies that lie beyond the gap. They belong to the Virgo Cluster, which has thousands of galaxies. Many are those are much larger than our own Milky Way.

The Virgo Cluster is dominated by a stunning group of galaxies that make up a curved arc called Markarian’s Chain. It lies about 70 million light-years away from us. There are spiral galaxies in the chain, as well as elliptical and lenticular-shaped ones.

Not far from the chain is the giant M87 elliptical galaxy and its smaller companions.

Almost anywhere you look during your imaginary flight through the Big Picture, there are galaxies in nearly every shape and form known to astronomers. You can even find galaxies merging together in a beautiful cosmic dance.

Beyond the Virgo Cluster, there is another gap. And, even more galaxy clusters lie beyond that—as far as we can see. Galaxies and galaxy clusters make up the fundamental structure of the universe – and the Big Picture is giving us a tiny peek at that structure.

The Big Picture is the work of a dedicated team of astronomers, data-processing experts, and imaging scientists at the California Institute of Technology, Yale University, and Palomar Observatory. They’re all doing work sponsored by the U.S. National Science Foundation.

Data for the image came from the Palomar-Quest astronomical sky survey, which is systematically mapping the universe out to the most distant quasars, more than 10 billion light-years away. To do this work, the survey scientists are using the 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope on Palomar Mountain near San Diego, California.

The Big Picture itself came from 20 nights of observations made between March 2004 and April 2005, all using the Quest Camera. It scans the sky to create image strips that are then combined to make larger mosaic images.

After the observations for the Big Picture were complete, the team took the data and worked with the CalTech Center for Advanced Computing Research to process it into a single 2.46-gigapixel image file. Then, scientists, graphics experts, and curators studied it and categorized the objects they found. While they were doing this, a team of exhibit specialists turned the image data into 114 porcelain display panels. These were installed at Griffith Observatory in 2006.

You can study this image at Griffith Observatory using small telescopes built into the mezzanine that overlooks the Gunther Depths of Space. Or, you can simply stand in front of the Big Picture and take in this sweeping, overwhelming, and beautiful view of a tiny part of the universe. And if you can’t make it to Griffith, don’t worry. The Big Picture is also available online for you to study.

Dr. George Djorgovski is a professor of astronomy at the California Institute of Technology, and one of two group leaders responsible for the creation of the Big Picture. In a special documentary film called The Once and Future Griffith, he expressed his guiding principle behind making the Big Picture available for everyone to enjoy.

“Probably the most striking thing about Big Picture is that it conveys a great richness of things and wonders in the universe. And, that’s what I hope will be the main reaction of people who see it – a sense of wonder, of amazing things that are out there in space and that we are beginning to understand.”

For more information about the Big Picture surf on over to and click on the 365 Days of Astronomy tab.

Thanks for listening!

Special thanks to Mark Pine, Deputy Director at Griffith Observatory for permission to use the George Djorgovski clip from The Once and Future Griffith.

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
The 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast is produced by the New Media Working Group of the International Year of Astronomy 2009. Audio post-production by Preston Gibson. Bandwidth donated by and wizzard media. Web design by Clockwork Active Media Systems. You may reproduce and distribute this audio for non-commercial purposes. Please consider supporting the podcast with a few dollars (or Euros!). Visit us on the web at or email us at Until tomorrow…goodbye.