Astronomers at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) have been working toward this video for 26 years. It’s a zoom sequence – with this version posted July 26, 2018 – that takes you to the heart of our home galaxy, the Milky Way. ESO wrote on YouTube:
This zoom video sequence starts with a broad view of the Milky Way. We then dive into the dusty central region to take a much closer look. There lurks a 4-million-solar-mass black hole, surrounded by a swarm of stars orbiting rapidly. We first see the stars in motion, thanks to 26 years of data from ESO’s telescopes. We then see an even closer view of one of the stars, known as S2, passing very close to the black hole in May 2018. The final part shows a simulation of the motions of the stars.
It’s pretty incredible when you think of it. Some astronomers have spent decades – their entire careers, in some cases – doing the work required to obtain the images and information that went into making this video. The tweet below from Jason Wang (@semaphore_P on Twitter), a grad student in astronomy at UC Berkeley, expresses some of the wonder we in astronomy feel when we see work like this:
Wow. 20 years of real footage of stars orbiting the black hole in the center of our Milky Way from @ESO. You can even see the instrumentation/image quality improve over time! pic.twitter.com/slXGzV6WLF
— Jason Wang (@semaphore_P) July 26, 2018
Of course, you can also see the Milky Way in the night sky, and 2018 has been a grand year to see it, since the planet Mars – still brighter than it’s been since 2003 – is near on the sky’s dome to the galaxy’s center. The moon is coming back to the evening sky now, so get out there this evening and catch it, before moonlight drowns the view!
Bottom line: A video zoom to the heart of our Milky Way, with its supermassive black hole.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.