Here’s a Never-Before-Seen View at the Center of the Milky Way Galaxy

"It’s incredible to see our galactic center in detail we’ve never seen before..."

The Milky Way Galaxy is our home in the universe. With a diameter between 150,000 and 200,000 light-years (ly), astronomers assume there are around 400-500 billion stars and more than 100 billion planets in the Milky Way alone.

Our solar system is located at a radius of around 27,000 light-years from the Galactic Center, on the inner edge of the Orion Arm.

Approximately 890 billion times the mass of our Sun, the Milky Way is believed to be the second-largest galaxy in the Local Group: a galactic group that includes the Milky Way and its satellite galaxies on one side, and the Andromeda Galaxy and the satellite galaxies on the other side.

A new view at the center of our galaxy

NASA has recently captured an extremely sharp infrared image of the center of the Milky Way. With 600 light-years away, it reveals details of dense swirls of gas and dust in high resolution.

The unprecedented view, a striking panoramic image, opens the door to future research heling experts understand how massive stars are formed, and what exactly feeds the supermassive black hole believed to exist at the center of the Milky Way.

Experts have revealed that among the features in focus are the unusual curves of the Arches Cluster that contain the densest concentration of stars in our galaxy, as well as the Fivefold Cluster with stars a million times brighter than our Sun.

The black hole of our galaxy takes shape with a glimpse of the fiery-looking gas ring that surrounds it.

A composite infrared image of the center of our Milky Way galaxy. Image Credit: NASA/SOFIA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/Herschel.
A composite infrared image of the center of our Milky Way galaxy. Image Credit: NASA/SOFIA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/Herschel.

A new view

The new, striking infrared image was made possible thanks to the largest aerial telescope in the world, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA.

Flying high in the atmosphere, this modified Boeing 747 pointed its infrared camera called FORCAST to observe warm galactic material that emits at wavelengths of light that other telescopes could not detect.

The image combines the new SOFIA perspective of warm regions with previous data exposing very hot and cold material from the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope and the Herschel Space Observatory of the European Space Agency.

“It’s incredible to see our galactic center in detail we’ve never seen before,” revealed James Radomski, a Universities Space Research Association scientist at the SOFIA Science Center.

“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.”

Where Stars are born

The new data has shown the Milky Way’s central region having more of the dense gas and dust that are the building blocks for new stars compared to other parts of the galaxy.

Despite this, there are 10 times fewer massive stars born here than anticipated. Finding our why this inconsistency exists has been challenging because of all the dust between Earth and the galactic core getting in the way. However, observing with infrared light offers a closer look at the situation.

As revealed by NASA, SOFIAs new infrared data illuminates structures indicative of star birth near the Quintuplet Cluster and warm material near the Arches Cluster that could be the very seeds for new stars.

Observing these warm features in high resolution may help scientists explain how some of the most massive stars in our entire galaxy were able to form so close to each other, in a relatively small region, despite the low birthrate in the surrounding areas.

“Understanding how massive star birth happens at the center of our own galaxy gives us information that can help us learn about other, more distant galaxies,” explained Matthew Hankins, a postdoctoral scholar and the principal investigator of the project.

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