Wild art? No, it’s a radio image of the heart of our Milky Way

Eyelash-like filaments accent the brightest spot — a supermassive black hole

The MeerKAT telescope array in South Africa provided this image of radio emissions from the center of the Milky Way. Stronger radio signals are in false color, depicted as red and orange. Fainter zones are colored in gray, where darker shades point to stronger emissions.

I. Heywood/SARAO

There’s a new image that looks like a trippy Eye of Sauron. Or perhaps it’s a splatter of modern art. Actually, this image is a new detailed view of the Milky Way’s chaotic center. But it’s not what you’d see with the human eye. This photo was captured in radio wavelengths.

The image was taken with a radio-telescope array in South Africa. Its details emerged slowly over the course of three years. In all, the data for it required 200 hours of observing. The picture is a mosaic that comes from combining 20 separate images. The bright, star-dense galactic plane runs from left to right across the image. Researchers shared this spectacular cosmic view in a paper to be published in the Astrophysical Journal.

The MeerKAT telescopes captured the radio-wave light emitted by several cosmic treasures. These include stellar nurseries and exploding stars known as supernovas. An especially energetic region surrounds a supermassive black hole at our galaxy’s center. It shows up brightly. One puffy remnant left over from a supernova can be seen at the bottom right. And the supermassive black hole shows up as the bright orange “eye” in the center.

Sagittarius A*
A supermassive black hole known as Sagittarius A* sits at the center of our galaxy. It shines in the lower center of this closeup image from the MeerKAT radio-telescope observatory. Mysterious thin filaments accent the galaxy’s center.I. Heywood/SARAO

Other intriguing features include many wispy-looking radio filaments. Most of them slice up or down from the center of the image. A handful of them were first spotted in the 1980s. They are caused by accelerated electrons. The tiny particles create the glow in radio light as they gyrate in a magnetic field. But these filaments are hard to explain. There’s no obvious engine to accelerate those electrons.

“They were a puzzle. They’re still a puzzle,” says Farhad Yusef-Zadeh. He’s an astrophysicist at Northwestern University. It’s in Evanston, Ill. He discovered the filaments by accident while a graduate student.

Until now, scientists knew of so few filaments that they could only study them one at a time. Now MeerKAT has revealed hundreds, Yusef-Zadeh notes. Studying these strands as a group might help reveal their secrets, he and his colleagues report in a paper to be published in Astrophysical Journal Letters. “We’re definitely one step closer to seeing what these guys are about,” he says.

The MeerKAT observatory released data behind the new imagery so other scientists will be able analyze them, too. “There’s going to be a lot of science coming,” Yusef-Zadeh predicts.

Lisa Grossman is the astronomy writer at Science News. She has a degree in astronomy from Cornell University and a graduate certificate in science writing from University of California, Santa Cruz. She lives near Boston.

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