A new view of the vast dust clouds that fill the Milky Way galaxy has been obtained by NASA's Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite.

The photograph released yesterday, together with an earlier COBE image, provides scientists with their first chance to compare the distribution of interstellar dust in the galaxy with the distribution of stars.

In the upper photo above, the warm glow from the clouds of dust and gas between the stars is captured in far-infrared wavelengths of light.

The bottom image, released in April, reveals the same area but in near-infrared wavelengths that can penetrate the dust clouds. Here, the stars themselves show up, arrayed in a thin spiraling disc viewed from its edge, with a bulge of tightly packed stars at the center.

The sun lies in the edge of the disc, about 28,000 light years from the center bulge.

COBE, launched in November, is studying the cold faint light, or background radiation, from the primal Big Bang explosion believed to have created the universe. Scientists gathered at the University of Maryland this week reported that COBE has found that the Big Bang fireball was unexpectedly smooth, with no "signature" of explosions or other events that scientists had theorized might have built today's universe.

"Everybody is excited about the theories that are dead or about to die because of COBE," said project scientist John C. Mather of Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.