Party at the Downtown Milky Way

NASA recently posted an image of stars gathering in “downtown” Milky Way.  The image is truly spectacular, and looks more like a painting than a snapshot taken from space.  Pictures like these are always so humbling.

In this Spitzer image, the myriad of stars crowding the center of our galaxy creates the blue haze that brightens towards the center of the image. The green features are from carbon-rich dust molecules, called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are illuminated by the surrounding starlight as they swirl around the galaxy’s core. The yellow-red patches are the thermal glow from warm dust. The polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and dust are associated with bustling hubs of young stars. These materials, mixed with gas, are required for making new stars.

The brightest white feature at the center of the image is the central star cluster in our galaxy. At a distance of 26,000 light years away from Earth, it is so distant that, to Spitzer’s view, most of the light from the thousands of individual stars is blurred into a single glowing blotch. Astronomers have determined that these stars are orbiting a massive black hole that lies at the very center of the galaxy.

The region pictured here is immense, with a horizontal span of 2,400 light-years (5.3 degrees) and a vertical span of 1,360 light-years (3 degrees). Though most of the objects seen in this image are located near the galactic center, the features above and below the galactic plane tend to lie closer to Earth.

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