The center of the Milky Way is a place of great beauty and extreme events, some of which astronomers finally been able to image. In this incredible new composite photograph, you can see these cosmic phenomena at work. Powerful X-rays light the central regions surrounding the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, Sagittarius A*, with powerful magnetic fields stretching for hundreds of light-years.
This breathtaking image is a tapestry made of over 370 observations by NASA’s Chandra X-ray telescope with radio observation from the MeerKAT telescope in South Africa superimposed on the X-ray data. The combined image provides an incredible and important view of the center of the galaxy and how events like supernovae and occasional bursts from Sagittarius A* might be shaping it. Results from this work are published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
“The galaxy is like an ecosystem,” author Q Daniel Wang, a professor in the University of Massachusetts Amherst's astronomy department, whose findings are a result of more than two decades of research, said in a statement. “We know the centers of galaxies are where the action is and play an enormous role in their evolution.”
Despite its relative proximity, studying the center of the Milky Way is far from easy. Our view is obscured by dust and gas that even Hubble can't peer through. Chandra, which sees X-rays, rather than visible light that we can see with our own eyes, can penetrate the obfuscating dust and gas, revealing its secrets.
In this latest analysis, some of the exciting new discoveries are plumes emitted by Sagittarius A* as well as an X-ray thread called G0.17-0.41 located near the southern plume, probably the result of some energetic magnetic phenomena.
“This thread reveals a new phenomenon,” explained Wang. “This is evidence of an ongoing magnetic field reconnection event.” A magnetic field reconnection event is when two opposing magnetic fields are forced together and combine, releasing a huge amount of energy. This violent process is responsible for solar flares, which can produce incredibly bright Northern Lights.
There is still so much to understand about the center of the Milky Way, such as its energy budget, how these violent events unfold, and how they impact the rest of the galaxy. Astronomers can use these new insights to further understand the workings of our and other similar galaxies.