NASA’s Stunning New Photograph of the Milky Way Is a Cosmic Masterpiece 20 Years in the Making

NASA’s latest image of the Milky Way is two decades in the making.

The dramatic view of the heart of the galaxy combines 370 observations taken over a period of 20 years and features billions of stars.

“What we see in the picture is a violent or energetic ecosystem in our galaxy’s downtown,” astronomer Daniel Wang of the University of Massachusetts Amherst told the Associated Press.

“There are a lot of supernova remnants, black holes, and neutron stars there. Each X-ray dot or feature represents an energetic source, most of which are in the center.”

Chandra X-ray data and MeerKAT radio observations combined for this panorama of the Milky Way’s galactic center.X-ray: NASA/CXC/UMass/Q.D. Wang; Radio: NRF/SARAO/Meerkat

Wang created the composite photograph while working from home over the past year, according to CNN, combining data from the orbiting Chandra X-ray Observatory and the MeerKAT radio telescope in South Africa. 

Different data is represented by the bright colors in the panorama. Chandra’s X-ray vision is viewed by orange, green, blue, and purple colors. The radio data of MeerKAT is lilac and gray.

The image is not only beautiful to look at, but it also helps scientists in their understanding of what’s going on in this part of our galaxy.

Daniel Wang is the lead author of a study that uses Chandra and MeerKAT to explore the fascinating features and structures that lurk in the Milky Way’s galactic center — the point around which our galaxy rotates. The paper appears in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society’s June issue.

Wang took a close look at a thread-like feature in the center.

“A detailed study of these threads teaches us more about the galactic space weather astronomers have witnessed throughout the region,” NASA said. The space agency said the weather is driven by dramatic events like supernova explosions, stars blowing off hot gas, and outbursts from near the galaxy’s supermassive black hole, Sagittarius A*.

The Milky Way, a spiral galaxy, formed about 13.51 billion years ago. Observing the galactic center is difficult because it is surrounded by a thick fog of dust and gas, but the new photo reveals a interstellar tapestry of gas and magnetic fields.

“The galaxy is like an ecosystem,” Wang explained. “We know the centers of galaxies are where the action is and play an enormous role in their evolution.”

See more views of the galactic center below.

Composite image of the Galactic Center made with radio data from MeerKAT. Courtesy of NASA/CXC/UMass/Q.D. Wang; Radio: NRF/SARAO/MeerKAT.

Composite image of the Galactic Center with labeled features. Courtesy of NASA/CXC/UMass/Q.D. Wang; Radio: NRF/SARAO/MeerKAT./CXC/UMass/Q.D. Wang; Radio: NRF/SARAO/MeerKAT.

X-ray & Radio Image of G0.17-0.41. Image courtesy of NASA/CXC/UMass/Q.D. Wang; Radio: NRF/SARAO/MeerKAT.

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