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NASA charts how stars evolve with a 160-megapixel image of neighboring galaxy

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NASA has been spying on our neighbors. With the help of Pennsylvania State University, it's assembled a huge photo collage of the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, two of the closest galaxies to our native Milky Way. The images, gathered with NASA's Swift telescope, create a picture that could let us track the formation of stars. But they're also amazing in their own right: a 160-megapixel collage of the Large Magellanic Cloud was assembled using 2,200 images that cover the 14,000 light-year-wide galaxy, and a 57-megapixel one for the Small Magellanic Cloud used 656 shots. Both can be found at NASA's site, with the largest TIFF image topping out at 457MB.

The collages offer a highly detailed look at the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, which respectively sit 163,000 and 200,000 light-years away. Instead of using visible light, the images were collected using the Swift ultraviolet telescope. In ultraviolet images, "normal" and older stars like our sun show up less brightly, while young, hot stars become prominent — the most visible ones are less than 500 million years old. That means NASA can get a clearer picture of where (and how) these young stars are born. Ultimately, the goal is to chart the life cycle of galaxies, whether in neighboring regions, distant stretches of space, or the Milky Way itself.