Online Astronomy eText: Galaxies and the Universe
The Milky Way
(also see Our Galaxy and Its Satellites)
 A black and white panoramic photomosaic of the Milky Way, with a horizontal line showing the plane of the "galactic equator". This view much more closely approximates the appearance of the Milky Way as seen by the unaided eye than any color image. The eye is not sensitive to color at low light levels, so all colorful images of the Milky Way are "false-color" views.
 The view of our galaxy from the inside is of a broad band of faint stars circling the sky, partially or mostly obscured by clouds of gas and dust. (Orion is visible below the galactic equator at both ends of the image, showing that it does wrap all the way round the sky.) In the direction of the center of the galaxy (just right of center) the Milky Way appears brighter and broader, because the nucleus extends above and below the plane of the disk. Two other members of the Local Group of galaxies are visible in this image, both below the plane of the Milky Way. Near bottom left, the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) is visible as a small diagonal streak. At bottom right, the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) is visible as a vertical smudge of stars. The Andromeda Galaxy is about the same size as our galaxy, while the LMC is only about a sixth as large; but the smaller galaxy is less than 200,000 light-years away, while the larger one is over 2 million light-years away, and appears smaller because of its much greater distance. (ESO)
Despite the caveats above, there is something to be said for color images, as shown below (ESO, S. Brunier)
Below, a (false-color) infrared panorama of the center of our galaxy. (Spitzer Space Telescope, Susan Stolovy (SSC/Caltech) et al., JPL-Caltech, NASA)