On January 5, 2020, astronomers at the American Astronomical Society annual meeting in Honolulu, Hawaii, presented a new, extremely crisp infrared image of the center of our Milky Way galaxy.
Among the features coming into focus are the jutting curves of the Arches Cluster containing the densest concentration of stars in our galaxy, as well as the Quintuplet Cluster with stars a million times brighter than our sun. Our galaxy’s black hole takes shape with a glimpse of the fiery-looking ring of gas surrounding it.
Astronomers created the image using a special infrared camera aboard NASA’s SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) flying telescope, that captured images of warm, galactic material emitting wavelengths of light that other telescopes could not detect. The data was collected in July 2019, during SOFIA’s annual deployment to Christchurch, New Zealand, where scientists study the skies over the Southern Hemisphere. The new panoramic image combines SOFIA’s new perspective with previous data exposing very hot and cold material from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and the European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory.
The astronomers said this new image opens a door to future research into how massive stars form and into what’s feeding the supermassive black hole at our galaxy’s core. James Radomski at NASA’s Ames Research Center commented:
It’s incredible to see our galactic center in detail we’ve never seen before. Studying this area has been like trying to assemble a puzzle with missing pieces. The SOFIA data fills in some of the holes, putting us significantly closer to having a complete picture.
Here’s more from NASA’s statement about the image:
The Milky Way’s central regions have significantly more of the dense gas and dust that are the building blocks for new stars compared to other parts of the galaxy. Yet, there are 10 times fewer massive stars born here than expected. Understanding why this discrepancy exists has been difficult because of all the dust between Earth and the galactic core getting in the way – but observing with infrared light offers a closer look at the situation.
The new infrared data illuminates structures indicative of star birth near the Quintuplet Cluster and warm material near the Arches Cluster that could be the seeds for new stars.
Scientists can also more clearly see the material that may be feeding the ring around our galaxy’s central supermassive black hole. The ring is about 10 light-years in diameter and plays a key role in bringing matter closer to the black hole, where it may eventually be devoured. The origin of this ring has long been a puzzle for scientists because it may be depleted over time, but the SOFIA data reveal several structures which could represent material being incorporated into it.
An overview paper highlighting initial results has been submitted for publication to the Astrophysical Journal.
Bottom line: New image shows the center of the Milky Way galaxy in never-seen-before detail.
Eleanor Imster has helped write and edit EarthSky since 1995. She was an integral part of the award-winning EarthSky radio series almost since it began until it ended in 2013. Today, as Lead Editor at EarthSky.org, she helps present the science and nature stories and photos you enjoy. She also serves as one of the voices of EarthSky on social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and G+. She and her husband live in Tennessee and have two grown sons.