Published December 15, 2022 | Version v1
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Milky Way Arch over La Palma


Winner in the 2022 IAU OAE Astrophotography Contest, category Still images of celestial patterns.


This image, which shows the majestic band of the Milky Way and a range of culturally significant patterns, was taken in May 2022 at a very high altitude from the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory in La Palma, from which one can see the clouds below. Some prominent star patterns include Scorpius, Sagittarius, Lyra, Cygnus, Aquila, the Summer Triangle asterism, and the Teapot asterism.

As the Canary Islands used to be a starting point for European sailors to explore the world, we use this place to point to the many indigenous cultures they encountered. Most notably it is the dark patterns within the band of the Milky Way that hold significance for many Indigenous cultures around the world. The dark patterns are in fact dense, cool clouds of gas and dust that block the light from stars. Indigenous people see caves, waterways and various patterns associated with the dark regions of the Milky Way.

The constellations and patterns hold different cultural significance and interpretations for different people. For example, the constellation Scorpius is referred to by Polynesian people as the demigod Maui’s Fishhook. The Yolnu people of Arnhem Land associate Scorpius with a crocodile called Ingalpir. Some Indigenous Australian groups associate stories with individual stars within Scorpius, most notably Antares, the orange-red star in the top right of the image above the band of the Milky Way. Next to the Scorpion and above the bright centre of the Milky Way, there is a prominent dark cloud that is called the Pipe Nebula by modern astrophotographers. The smoke of this pipe goes up to rho Ophiuchi. This and all the other dark clouds in the Milky Way together form the backbone of heaven for some tribes, and an animal with black-and-white skin for South African Zulu people.

The nomenclature of bright stars also has cross-cultural roots. For example, Vega (the bright blue star towards the top of the image) comes from the Arabic waqi, from al-nasr al-waqi, the Eagle who throws himself down (in order to hunt). This contrasts with the Flying Eagle, Altair, also derived from Arabic. Antares is a Greek word meaning “the one similar to Mars”, referring to its colour. The star name Shaula in the stinger of the Scorpion is a modern version of the Babylonian or even Sumerian star name.

Credit: Amirreza Kamkar/IAU OAE (CC BY 4.0)


Winner in the 2022 IAU OAE Astrophotography Contest, category Still images of celestial patterns: Milky Way Arch over La Palma, by Amirreza Kamkar.jpg