Axel Mellinger says that by the age of 12, he was in love with night.
He stayed up late with telescope and camera, taking pictures of galaxies and planets. He studied physics, first in his native Germany, then in the United States. He is now a professor at Central Michigan University, doing research by day on polymers and electric charges.
Two years ago he went on a mission. He set out to create a massive photographic panorama of all the stars in the night sky. He is now finished -- having created an image with something like 25 million stars in it.
Click HERE to take a look, then please come back. It looks like almost any other image of the sky, until you use the controls in the upper right to zoom in. And in. And in.
"It's just so amazing to see the band of the Milky Way arcing from one end of the horizon straight above you to the other," he said in an interview with ABC News. "And if you're in a really dark place, the light of the Milky Way can actually cast a shadow."
Mellinger spent two years, off and on, in places far enough from civilization to make the shadows visible. He went to Big Bend National Park in west Texas to photograph the stars of the northern hemisphere, and found a smilarly remote corner of South Africa to shoot the southern hemisphere.
In all, he took 3,000 digital photographs -- each exposure lasting an hour and a half or more. Then he came home to his lab in Mt. Pleasant, Mich., and electronically stitched the images together into one seamless whole. It took a hundred hours of computing time.
A good digital camera for amateurs these days will probably shoot 12-megapixel pictures. Mellinger's panorama is the equivalent of a 648-megapixel photo.
The light band across the middle of the picture is the Milky Way. If you look carefully, you may be able to make out the Big Dipper in the upper left. There would be more stars in the panorama, but our local galaxy is a surprisingly dusty place.
Why go to such an effort? Planetariums will use the image, he hopes, to project detailed views of the sky on their domes. A French photographer, Serge Brunier, has done similar work.
Mellinger actually created a night panorama once before, a decade ago when star photography was done on film. But digital cameras allow for greater detail, including the brightest and dimmest stars in the same picture.
Panorama of Entire Sky from Earth
Beyond that, Mellinger said, there is value in looking at the sky.
"Obviously we do have a lot of problems here on earth, but why not set aside a little time for seeing the big picture?" he said. "A panorama of the entire night sky shows our place in the universe. It shows us that there is so much more than our tiny little earth. I think that's something that's well worth contemplating."