NASA has released an incredible new picture of the Milky Way, a project that took an astronomer a year of working from home during lockdowns to create.
The Milky Way is the galaxy that contains our solar system, including our Sun, the Earth and our Moon.
The image shows our galaxy’s violent, super-energised “downtown”, or main centre of activity.
It’s a composite* of 370 observations taken over the past two decades by the orbiting Chandra X-ray Observatory, depicting* billions of stars and countless black holes in the centre of the Milky Way. Images taken by a radio telescope called MeerKAT in South Africa also contributed to the composite image, to create contrast.
X-rays from Chandra are orange, green, blue and purple, showing different X-ray energies. Radio data from MeerKAT is shown in lilac and grey.
The image also shows threads of superheated gas and magnetic fields.
The new panorama* builds on previous surveys from Chandra and other telescopes. This latest version expands Chandra’s high-energy view farther above and below the plane of the galaxy — that is, the disk where most of the galaxy’s stars reside — than previous composite images.
Astronomer Professor Daniel Wang of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, in the US, said on Friday he spent a year working on this while stuck at home during the pandemic.
“What we see in the picture is a violent or energetic ecosystem in our galaxy’s downtown,” Prof Wang said in an email. “There are a lot of supernova remnants, black holes, and neutron stars* there. Each X-ray dot or feature represents an energetic source, most of which are in the center.”
This busy, high-energy galactic centre is 26,000 light-years* away.
His work appears in the June issue of the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Chandra is in an extreme oval orbit around Earth. It was launched in 1999.
- composite: lots of things put together to make one whole
- depicting: showing visually
- panorama: an unbroken view of the whole area around an observer
- neutron stars: collapsed core of a massive supergiant star
- light-years: a unit of distance; one light-year is the distance light travels in a year