Professor's Milky Way image used to illustrate confirmation of Einstein's theory

An image captured by Central Michigan University associate professor of physics, Axel Mellinger, was used to illustrate the most likely location in the sky where a black hole collision took place 1.3 billion light-years away. Scientists and a Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory team used his Milky Way panorama to help illustrate the discovery.

The work of the LIGO team and scientists helped prove Albert Einstein's theories written in 1915, playing a large role in discovering a gravitational wave in the cosmos.

Mellinger took photos for his image from Michigan, Texas and South Africa. He began working on the panorama in the 1990s, beginning with an all-sky mosaic image of the Milky Way.

Mellinger explained how he captured the image that aided the discovery to Central Michigan Life.

What made you want to create the all-sky mosaic image of the Milky Way?

MELLINGER: This is actually the second all-sky panorama I created. The first one I did in the late '90s. 

At that time, I was still shooting on film and that proved to be quite popular. (The panorama) was used in a lot of planetariums and textbooks. 

As time progressed, the projection systems in planetariums got better so they needed a higher resolution and a larger color depth. Around 2007, I decided to redo that panorama, this time, with an all-digital camera. It took me about two years, from 2007 to 2009, to complete that picture.

What did you do within the two years?

I had to travel to some remote, dark places in the northern and southern hemisphere. I actually started in South Africa. I went there twice, about six months apart, to capture all of the southern sky. Then in early 2009, I went down to Big Ben National Park in Texas where I did a lot of the Northern Hemisphere sky. Then in the summer of 2009, I took the remaining Northern Hemisphere pictures from up north here in Michigan.

When did you notice that your panorama contributed to the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory announcement?

I actually watched their press conference and saw one of their images where they showed the location of the source of the gravitational waves. 

I immediately noticed that the background looked a lot like my all-sky panorama. Then I went to their website and downloaded a higher resolution copy. 

I zoomed in and discovered a few artifacts in that image that were identical to the artifacts in my own image. The (reflection from the camera lens) almost is a signature or a fingerprint of my image. 

It was very unlikely that they would have a different camera with a different lens that would produce exactly the same kind of reflections.

Where did LIGO access your image?

They found it on a website called "Aladin," a server for astronomical images. It is operated by the University of Strasbourg in France. It allows you to access different (images) of the sky. There’s optical wavelengths, infrared and x-rays. They also have my own Milky Way panorama as one of the options.