Peering into the Galactic Center

Science • Views: 2,002

The Hubble Space Telescope gets all the publicity, but there’s another orbiting telescope that sees into the X-ray spectrum and is also sending back mind-bending images from the depths of space — the Chandra X-ray Observatory.

The latest photograph from Chandra shows the center of our Milky Way galaxy, and the supermassive black hole named Sagittarius A (the bright spot at center right in this image).

A dramatic new vista of the center of the Milky Way galaxy from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory exposes new levels of the complexity and intrigue in the Galactic center. The mosaic of 88 Chandra pointings represents a freeze-frame of the spectacle of stellar evolution, from bright young stars to black holes, in a crowded, hostile environment dominated by a central, supermassive black hole.

Permeating the region is a diffuse haze of X-ray light from gas that has been heated to millions of degrees by winds from massive young stars - which appear to form more frequently here than elsewhere in the Galaxy - explosions of dying stars, and outflows powered by the supermassive black hole - known as Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*). Data from Chandra and other X-ray telescopes suggest that giant X-ray flares from this black hole occurred about 50 and about 300 years earlier.

The area around Sgr A* also contains several mysterious X-ray filaments. Some of these likely represent huge magnetic structures interacting with streams of very energetic electrons produced by rapidly spinning neutron stars or perhaps by a gigantic analog of a solar flare.

Scattered throughout the region are thousands of point-like X-ray sources. These are produced by normal stars feeding material onto the compact, dense remains of stars that have reached the end of their evolutionary trail - white dwarfs, neutron stars and black holes.

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Last updated: 2016-01-01 10:29 am PST
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