Using the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), NASA has been able to capture an unprecedented look at the centre of our galactic neighbourhood. The infrared image of the Milky Way’s interior shows red and blue swirling gasses and dust, including the Arches Cluster, which is the densest patch of stars in the Milky Way. Alongside that is the Quintuplet Cluster which contains stars a million times brighter than our Sun.
However, the most impressive detail is the ring of debris feeding Sagittarius A* – the supermassive black hole situated at the centre of the Milky Way.
Sagittarius A* is a monster of a black hole, with a radius of 22 million kilometres and a mass around four million times that of the sun.
NASA said: “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 lightyears in diameter and plays a key role in bringing matter closer to the black hole, where it may eventually be devoured.
NASA image shows Milky Way’s black hole devouring everything within reach
NASA used the SOFIA telescope
“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.”
SOFIA is a 2.7 metre telescope on board a Boeing 747SP aircraft which is then flown into the stratosphere – about 38,000-45,000 feet above Earth’s surface.
In that position, scientists are above above 99 percent of Earth’s infrared-blocking atmosphere, allowing a clear view of the cosmos.
This is what has allowed NASA experts to get a clearer view of the Milky Way.
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Gas swirls around the centre
NASA continued: “The image combines SOFIA’s new perspective of warm regions with previous data exposing very hot and cold material from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and the European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory.”
James Radomski, a Universities Space Research Association scientist at the SOFIA Science Center, said: “It’s incredible to see our galactic centre 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.”
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NASA has revealed an image of the centre of the Milky Way
By using the telescope to peer inside the Milky Way, scientists will be able to form a better understanding of how stars form and ultimately learn how the galaxy came to be.
Matthew Hankins, a postdoctoral scholar at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California and principal investigator of the project, said: “Understanding how massive star birth happens at the centre of our own galaxy gives us information that can help us learn about other, more distant galaxies.
“Using multiple telescopes gives us clues we need to understand these processes, and there’s still more to be uncovered.”