Astronomers have captured a spectacular new image of the Milky Way’s center, revealing the remnants of 27 massive stars that exploded as supernovae at the end of their lives.
The image was snapped by the Murchison Widefield Array telescope located in the outback of Western Australia. It shows the galaxy as it would appear if we could see radio waves.
“This new view captures low-frequency radio emission from our galaxy, looking both in fine detail and at larger structures,” Natasha Hurley-Walker, from the Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), said in a statement.
“Our images are looking directly at the middle of the Milky Way, towards a region astronomers call the Galactic Center.”
This region is the rotational center of our galaxy, located around 26,500 light-years away from Earth in the direction of the constellations Sagittarius, Ophiuchus and Scorpius.
Around 10 million stars are located within a distance of some 3.2 light-years from the Galactic Center. At the heart of this region lies a supermassive black hole known as Sagittarius A*, which has a mass of around four million suns.
The latest image was taken as part of the GaLactic and Extragalactic All-sky MWA survey, or GLEAM for short, which maps the sky by detecting a wide range of radio frequencies.
“It’s the power of this wide frequency range that makes it possible for us to disentangle different overlapping objects as we look toward the complexity of the Galactic Center,” Hurley-Walker said. “Essentially, different objects have different ‘radio colors,’ so we can use them to work out what kind of physics is at play.”
By analyzing the images, Hurley-Walker and colleagues identified the remnants of 27 massive stars—eight or more times more massive than our sun—which exploded in cataclysmic events known as supernovae.
One of the newly discovered supernovae remnants represents the remains of a star that died less than 9,000 years ago. Despite being relatively young, it is very faint.
Furthermore, two of the remnants appear to be located in a seemingly “empty” region where there are no massive stars, suggesting that future searches in similar areas may prove more fruitful than previously thought.
The researchers also uncovered several supernovae that are much older, which are particularly intriguing to astronomers.
“This is really exciting for us, because it’s hard to find supernova remnants in this phase of life—they allow us to look further back in time in the Milky Way,” Hurley-Walker said.
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