NASA's flying telescope captures galaxy center in unprecedented detail
“New year, new look” also applies to our galaxy it seems, with NASA releasing a new panoramic infrared image of the center of the Milky Way. With data gathered by the plane-based Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), the image reveals new details of certain regions that have been traditionally tricky to capture.
The image spans an area of more than 600 light-years, and although the galactic center is one of the most photographed areas, this new infrared view highlights details that haven’t been seen before. At the top of the central section, the Arches cluster – the densest known star cluster in the galaxy – can be seen sharper than usual. And the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way can be seen as a bright white splodge in the middle-right of the image, glowing thanks to superheated dust surrounding it.
"We are filling in the most active star-forming regions of the galactic center that were missing in previous images,” says Matt Hankins, principal investigator of the program.
These new details were made possible thanks to SOFIA’s unique design. The telescope is installed onboard a Boeing 747SP jetliner, and flying at 40,000 ft allows it to bypass much of the atmospheric interference that messes with ground-based observatories.
Infrared allows the instrument to peer through the dust clouds that obscure visible-light telescopes. SOFIA also has some advantages over other infrared instruments. For one, it’s able to take shorter exposures – longer ones tend to wash out the details in brighter sections of sky. And because SOFIA operates at mid-infrared wavelengths, it can see through cold dust while picking up signals of warm dust.
The image was created as a composition of infrared data taken by several telescopes. The blue and green sections were shot during eight SOFIA flights using the instrument Faint Object Infrared Camera for the SOFIA Telescope (FORCAST – and no, we don’t know how that acronym works either). The red comes from data from the Herschel Space Observatory, and the white areas are from Spitzer.
The new image will help inform future observations, including the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope.
A study describing the find has been submitted to The Astrophysical Journal for publication. The finds are explored in the video below.