This stunning image may reveal why there are no stars at the heart of our galaxy

January 10, 2020, 9:19 a.m.
A composite image of the center of the Milky Way galaxy.
Photo: NASA/SOFIA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/Herschel

If you've gazed at the star-studded Milky Way in the night sky, you may have wondered about the strange haze at its heart.

Astronomers, too, have long puzzled over that creamy filling. If the core is made up of gas and dust — the key ingredients for fresh-baked stars — why are there so few of them hanging around there?

This spellbinding new image from NASA — capturing the core in a sweeping, 600-light-year wide panorama — may offer a hint.

Using infrared data, scientists were able to illuminate the galaxy's core in spectacular high-definition, revealing features that have never been seen before.

Astronomers are hoping those super-crisp details will help them account for the mysterious dearth of stars in the region.

"The Milky Way's central regions have significantly more of the dense gas and dust that are the building blocks for new stars compared to other parts of the galaxy," NASA notes in a press release. "Yet, there are 10 times fewer massive stars born here than expected."

If the center of our galaxy is also its oven, where fresh stars are baked from raw ingredients like gas and dust, you might think there would be more than a few celestial cookies hanging around there.

But even the stars that do manage to emerge from that central oven come out strange and misshapen. They tend to stick together, resulting in dense gatherings of bright stars like the Quintuplet Cluster and Arches Cluster. You can see both clusters in the incredibly high-resolution image NASA captured.

For their research, astronomers relied on the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, known simply as SOFIA. As the largest airborne telescope in existence, SOFIA can cast its infrared eye far into the cosmos, all while mounted on a roving Boeing 747 that has been modified to bear a bevy of sensors.

Without SOFIA's penetrating gaze, much of the details at the heart of our galaxy would be concealed by the dense, light-blocking clouds that dominate the region. The image even reveals clouds of material being hoovered into the galaxy's black hole-in-residence: Sagittarius A*.

"It's incredible to see our galactic center in detail we've never seen before," James Radomski, a scientists at SOFIA notes in the release. "Studying this area has been like trying to assemble a puzzle with missing pieces. The SOFIA data fills in some of the holes, putting us significantly closer to having a complete picture."

To fill in that picture even further, astronomers once again turn to the telescope of tomorrow: The James Webb Space Satellite. Already fully assembled, the all-seeing eye is expected to launch in March 2021. Once in orbit, its powerful sensors will be able to draw back the cosmic curtain even further than the pioneering Hubble Space Telescope.

And unravelling the mystery of our own cosmic heart could also help us understand the inner workings of much more distant galaxies.

"Understanding how massive star birth happens at the center of our own galaxy gives us information that can help us learn about other, more distant galaxies," principal investigator Matthew Hankins of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, explains in the statement. "Using multiple telescopes gives us clues we need to understand these processes, and there's still more to be uncovered."