This might look like a petri dish with some blobs on it, or perhaps lens flare on some glass. But it is actually a rather stunning look at the center of our Milky Way galaxy.
The amazing image was created using observations from South Africa’s MeerKAT radio telescope, an array of 64 dishes across South Africa. These collect radio waves from the universe, and in this case, they’ve been used to build a picture of the supermassive black hole at the heart of our galaxy, Sagittarius A*, 25,000 light-years away.
“This image is remarkable,” Farhad Yusef-Zadeh of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois said in a statement. “The MeerKAT image has such clarity… it shows so many features never before seen.”
These features include filaments near the black hole itself, which appear nowhere else in our galaxy. First discovered in the 1980s, these filaments are long, narrow, and magnetized. Their origin is a mystery, one that could be solved in part by this research.
Scientists created the image to show the capabilities of the MeerKAT instrument, which was only recently fully switched on when all 64 antennae were completed. Each spans about 13.5 meters (44.3 feet) across, and together they can produce 2,000 unique antenna pairs, used to study different regions of the sky in tandem.
We can’t observe Sagittarius A* in visible light, because it is shrouded in thick clouds of dust and gas. But using a radio telescope like this (or infrared and X-ray telescopes), we can peer through the dust and glimpse the black hole and its surroundings. A separate project is trying to directly image the black hole itself at the moment.
In the image, the galactic center is located in the brightest area near the image center, measuring about 1,000 light-years across. Other bright areas of the image are the result of things such as supernova remnants and star-forming regions.
“The centre of the galaxy was an obvious target: unique, visually striking and full of unexplained phenomena – but also notoriously hard to image using radio telescopes,” Fernando Camilo, chief scientist of the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), which built and operates MeerKAT, said in the statement.
“Although it’s early days with MeerKAT, and a lot remains to be optimised, we decided to go for it – and were stunned by the results.”