The Milky Way: an electrifying sight

Noise and chaos reign at the heart of the Milky Way, our home galaxy, or so it seems in an amazing image captured recently by astronomer...


Noise and chaos reign at the heart of the Milky Way, our home galaxy, or so it seems in an amazing image captured recently by astronomers from South Africa.

The image, taken by the MeerKAT radio telescope, an array of 64 antennae spread across five miles of desert in northern South Africa, reveals a storm of activity in the central region of the Milky Way, with threads of laced and bent radio broadcast through space among energy bubbles. In the very center Sagittarius A*, a well-studied supermassive black hole, emits its own exuberant buzz.

We are used to seeing galaxies, from afar, as soft, shining eggs of light or as majestic, jeweled swirls. Rarely will we see the commotion under the clouds, all the forms of frenzy that can reach a hundred million stars.

The image was captured and analyzed by a team of astronomers led by Ian Heywood from the University of Oxford and the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory. They published their results last week in the Journal of Astrophysics.

MeerKAT is a precursor to the Square Kilometer Array, a massive array of antennas slated for construction in South Africa and Australia over the next decade. When completed, it will be the most powerful radio telescope on Earth for the foreseeable future.

To visible-light telescopes, large sections of the Milky Way sky are rendered black by clouds of cosmic dust in between. But radio waves pass through, allowing MeerKAT to get up close and personal.

“The best telescopes expand our horizons in unexpected ways,” said Fernando Camilo, chief scientist at the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory and one of many co-authors of the new paper, in a press release.

Twenty separate observations, generating 70 terabytes of data and requiring three years of processing, were needed to produce the image. The result is a panorama 1,000 light-years wide and 600 light-years high of the central regions of the Milky Way. (The entire galaxy is 100,000 light-years across, and its center is 25,000 light-years from Earth.)

The Milky Way’s disk, where most stars and exoplanets reside, appears in the image as an irregular horizontal streak. A blob of dense energy in the middle of the footage marks the spot where a black hole four million times more massive than our sun lurks. The surrounding region is filled with mysterious glowing filaments up to 100 light-years long.

Astronomers have speculated that these filaments, first recognized 35 years ago, are formed by magnetized tubes of high-energy gases and particles. But scientists still don’t understand how these came about. The new paper, according to the study authors, has brought together enough new examples of these traits to investigate their properties and varieties as a group for the first time.

Emanating vertically above and below the galactic disk are a pair of gigantic radio bubbles, likely the remnants of a series of supernova explosions that occurred millions of years ago. In the background, the radio image is dotted with the bright spots of supermassive black holes in distant galaxies.

“I spent a lot of time looking at this image working on it, and I never get tired of it,” Dr. Heywood said.

Dr. Camilo agreed that the bowels of the galaxy resembled an electrical storm. “Electrical activity is of course very crucial for our living animal hearts,” he added. “I suppose you could say that without electrical activity, the center/core of the galaxy, if not dead, would look very, very different.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: The Milky Way: an electrifying sight
The Milky Way: an electrifying sight
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