NASA has released a detailed image of the “violent energy” at the core of the Milky Way. This image came after two decades of research.
The center of the Milky Way is about 26,000 light-years from Earth. Our galactic core is a cosmic web of hot gases and magnetic fields. Weaved around each other, they create a spectacular galactic display.
Scientists used data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the MeerKAT radio telescope in South Africa to create this striking panoramic image. The mosaic is the result of 370 Chandra observations from 1999 to 2019. A total of 1,555 hours and 26 minutes of observations represents more than 64 days.
“The galaxy is like an ecosystem,” lead researcher Daniel Wang, a professor in the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s astronomy department, said in a separate statement. “We know the centers of galaxies are where the action is and play an enormous role in their evolution.”
Our galactic center is extremely hard to study because a dense fog of gas and dust obscures it. So astronomers simply can’t see the Milky Way’s core even with an instrument as powerful as the famous Hubble Space Telescope. Wang, however, has used NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, which “sees” X-rays rather than the rays of visible light that we can see with our own eyes. These X-rays can penetrate the obscuring fog–and the results are breathtaking.
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X-rays from Chandra are orange, green, blue, and purple, showing different X-ray energies. Meanwhile, the radio data from MeerKAT are shown in lilac and gray. But in the labeled version of the image by the Chandra team, you can even pinpoint different notable features of the galactic center, including Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the Milky Way’s heart.
The panorama also documented an X-ray thread called G0.17-0.41. Researchers say it suggests a mechanism that could control the energy flow and even the evolution of the Milky Way.
Wang thinks that this thread could serve as evidence of magnetic field reconnection.
“This is evidence of an ongoing magnetic field reconnection event.” The thread, writes Wang, probably represents “only the tip of the reconnection iceberg.”
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Magnetic field reconnection events occur when opposing magnetic fields are forced together and become twisted around each other. Thus, expelling lots of energy. This is similar to the phenomenon that produces Northern Lights. These events also produce Northern Lights.
A detailed study of these threads teaches us more about the Galactic space weather astronomers have witnessed throughout the region. This weather is driven by volatile phenomena such as supernova explosions, close-quartered stars blowing off hot gas, and outbursts of matter from regions near Sagittarius A*, our Galaxy’s supermassive black hole.
Scientists now think that magnetic reconnection also takes place in interstellar space. And occurs at the outer boundaries of the expanding plumes driven out of our galaxy’s center.
The researchers published the images recently in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, and a preprint is available online.