The Milky Way: An Electric View

Noise and chaos reign at the heart of the Milky Way, our home galaxy, or it appears in an amazing picture taken recently by astronomers in South Africa.

The image taken by the MeerKAT radio telescope, a 64 antenna array spanning 5 miles of desert in northern South Africa, shows an active storm in the central region of the Milky Way, with the Radio-emitting fibers are joined and folded in the space between the energy bubbles. In the center Sagittarius A*, a well-studied supermassive black hole, which emits an interesting buzz of its own.

We are used to seeing galaxies, from afar, as soft, glowing eggs of light or as splendid whirlpools, adorned with jewels. Rarely do we see the swirling beneath the clouds – all the frenzy that hundreds of millions of stars can have.

The image was captured and analyzed by a team of astronomers led by Ian Heywood of the University of Oxford and the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory. They announced their results last week in Astrophysics Journal.

MeerKAT is the forerunner of the Square Kilometer Array, a massive set of antennas planned for construction in South Africa and Australia over the next decade. When completed, it will be the most powerful radio telescope on Earth for the foreseeable future.

To a visible-light telescope, large portions of the Milky Way sky are turned black by intervening cosmic dust clouds. But the radio waves pass right through, allowing MeerKAT to get close to the scene and the individual.

Fernando Camilo, principal scientist at the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory and one of the many co-authors of the new paper, said in a news release.

Twenty separate observations, generating 70 terabytes of data and requiring three years of processing, were needed to create the image. The result is a panorama 1,000 light-years wide and 600 light-years high of the Milky Way’s central regions. (The entire galaxy is 100,000 light-years across, and its center is 25,000 light-years from Earth.)

The disk of the Milky Way, home to most stars and exoplanets, appears in the image as a torn horizontal streak. A dense, energetic blob in the middle of the spot marks a black hole four million times more massive than our sun. The surrounding area is filled with mysterious glowing strings up to 100 light-years long.

Astronomers have surmised that such hairs, first recognized 35 years ago, are formed by magnetized tubes of gas and high-energy particles. But scientists still don’t understand how these things arise. The new paper has brought together enough new examples of such traits to study their traits and varieties as a group for the first time, the study’s authors claim.

Emitting vertically above and below the galactic disk is a pair of coincidentally massive radio bubbles, possibly the remnants of a series of supernova explosions that occurred several million years ago. In the background, the radio image is dotted with bright dots of supermassive black holes in distant galaxies.

“I spent a lot of time looking at this image in the process and I never got tired of it,” Dr. Heywood said.

Dr. Camilo concurs that the interior of the galaxy resembles an electrical storm. “Electrical activity is of course very important to our living animal hearts,” he added. “I suppose you could say that without electrical activity, the center/heart of the galaxy, if not dead, would look very, very different.” The Milky Way: An Electric View

Fry Electronics Team

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