Chandra’s portrait of Milky Way centre

Chandra’s image of the Galactic Centre combines low energy X-rays (red), intermediate energy X-rays (green), and high energy X-rays (blue). Click for enlarged, labelled version. Image: NASA/CXC/UMass/D. Wang et al.

Posted: September 22, 2009

Following ESO’s photo release of the Milky Way’s Galactic Centre yesterday, the Chandra X-ray Observatory presents this remarkable portrait, exposing new levels of complexity and intrigue at the heart of our Galaxy.

Chandra’s mosaic is made up of 88 observations, and captures stars at different stages of their evolution, from swarms of massive bright young stars to the explosions of dying stars, all packed into the crowded and hostile environment that is dominated by a central supermassive black hole known as Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*). Since X-rays penetrate the thick blanket of gas and dust that blocks optical light emanating from the centre of the galaxy, Chandra is an essential tool for probing the central regions of our Galaxy.

A diffuse haze of X-ray light floods the region, heated to millions of degrees by winds from newborn stars and stellar death-cries to flares powered by Sgr A*. The area around Sgr A* also contains several mysterious X-ray filaments, some of which are thought to represent gigantic magnetic structures interacting with streams of highly energetic electrons produced by rapidly spinning neutron stars. Point-like X-ray sources are also scattered throughout the locale, lighting up like beacons the locations of stellar end-members such as white dwarfs, neutron stars and black holes as they feed material onto their compact, dense cores.

The image is released to mark the opening of the “Chandra’s First Decade of Discovery” symposium being held in Boston this week.

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