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The Milky Way was probably even more dazzling in its youth

Ten billion years ago, the Milky Way may have looked much more like a colorful, even berry-licious, cosmic sundae.

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How the adolescent Milky Way may have looked in the night sky of an imaginary planet 10 billion years ago. NASA, ESA and Z. Levay/STScI

When the Milky Way was much younger, it went through a big growth spurt, just like many adolescents do. But a galaxy's growing pains -- rather than just causing abundant angst and acne -- results in the often spectacular formation of new stars en masse.

The above image shows what that period in our galaxy's history may have looked like 10 billion years ago, as it might have been observed from a hypothetical, Earth-like planet. The night sky seen here is on an imaginary planet because at this moment in galactic history, our own sun is still 5 billion years from being born.

Back then, when both the universe and Milky Way were in their relative adolescence, our galaxy was giving birth to new stars 30 times faster than it does today, which could have made for quite a light show.

To create this hypothetical moment from the cosmic past, researchers led by Casey Papovich at Texas A&M used data from the Hubble, Spitzer and Herschel Space Telescopes, as well as other ground-based observatories. The team looked at how other similar, more distant galaxies formed and used that information to make an educated guess as to how the Milky Way grew and changed over time.

"Most stars today exist in galaxies like the Milky Way, so by studying how galaxies like our own formed, we've come to understand the most typical locations of stars in the universe," Papovich said in a statement. "We now have the best picture of how galaxies like our own formed their stars."

That picture could be the above image of a remarkably pretty stellar nursery splashed across an imaginary, preplanetoric (that's a word I just made up for pre-planetary history) night sky.

A paper on the group's findings appears in the most recent issue of The Astrophysical Journal (PDF).