Under dark skies the setting of the Milky Way can be a dramatic sight. Stretching nearly parallel to the horizon, this rich, edge-on vista of our galaxy above the dusty Namibian desert stretches from bright, southern Centaurus (left) to Cepheus in the north (right). From early August, the digitally stitched, panoramic night skyscape captures the Milky Way’s congeries of stars and rivers of cosmic dust, along with colors of nebulae not readily seen with the eye. Mars, Saturn, and Antares, visible even in more luminous night skies, form the the bright celestial triangle just touching the trees below the galaxy’s central bulge. Of course, our own galaxy is not the only galaxy in the scene. Two other major members of our local group, the Andromeda Galaxy and the Triangulum Galaxy, lie near the right edge of the frame, beyond the arc of the setting Milky Way.

Object Names: Milky Way Galaxy.

Image Type: Astronomical

Credit: Juan Carlos Casado (TWAN, Earth And Stars)

Time And Space


The center of the Milky Way galaxy is currently a quiet place where a supermassive black hole slumbers, only occasionally slurping small sips of hydrogen gas. But it wasn’t always this way. A new study shows that 6 million years ago, when the first human ancestors known as hominins walked the Earth, our galaxy’s core blazed forth furiously. The evidence for this active phase came from a search for the galaxy’s missing mass.

Measurements show that the Milky Way galaxy weighs about 1-2 trillion times as much as our Sun. About five-sixths of that is in the form of invisible and mysterious dark matter. The remaining one-sixth of our galaxy’s heft, or 150-300 billion solar masses, is normal matter. However, if you count up all the stars, gas and dust we can see, you only find about 65 billion solar masses. The rest of the normal matter – stuff made of neutrons, protons, and electrons – seems to be missing.

“We played a cosmic game of hide-and-seek. And we asked ourselves, where could the missing mass be hiding?” says lead author Fabrizio Nicastro, a research associate at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) and astrophysicist at the Italian National Institute of Astrophysics (INAF).

“We analyzed archival X-ray observations from the XMM-Newton spacecraft and found that the missing mass is in the form of a million-degree gaseous fog permeating our galaxy. That fog absorbs X-rays from more distant background sources,” Nicastro continues.

The astronomers used the amount of absorption to calculate how much normal matter was there, and how it was distributed. They applied computer models but learned that they couldn’t match the observations with a smooth, uniform distribution of gas. Instead, they found that there is a “bubble” in the center of our galaxy that extends two-thirds of the way to Earth.

Clearing out that bubble required a tremendous amount of energy. That energy, the authors surmise, came from the feeding black hole. While some infalling gas was swallowed by the black hole, other gas was pumped out at speeds of 2 million miles per hour (1,000 km/sec).

Six million years later, the shock wave created by that phase of activity has crossed 20,000 light-years of space. Meanwhile, the black hole has run out of nearby food and gone into hibernation.

This timeline is corroborated by the presence of 6-million-year-old stars near the galactic center. Those stars formed from some of the same material that once flowed toward the black hole.

“The different lines of evidence all tie together very well,” says Smithsonian co-author Martin Elvis (CfA). “This active phase lasted for 4 to 8 million years, which is reasonable for a quasar.”

The observations and associated computer models also show that the hot, million-degree gas can account for up to 130 billion solar masses of material. Thus, it just might explain where all of the galaxy’s missing matter was hiding: it was too hot to be seen.

More answers may come from the proposed next-generation space mission known as X-ray Surveyor. It would be able to map out the bubble by observing fainter sources, and see finer detail to tease out more information about the elusive missing mass. The European Space Agency’s Athena X-ray Observatory, planned for launch in 2028, offers similar promise.

Peering deep into the heart of the Milky Way, this image shows a region of the sky in the constellation of Sagittarius. The two knots of stars you see are the globular clusters NGC 6522 (upper right) and NGC 6528 (lower left). There are over 200,000 stars in this image alone which covers a patch of sky just two-thirds as wide as the full moon.

The vastness of the cosmos is staggering.

Photo by Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona
Info Credit: Phil Plait, Bad Astronomy


For myself, I like a universe that, includes much that is unknown and, at the same time, much that is knowable. A universe in which everything is known would be static and dull, as boring as the heaven of some weak-minded theologians. A universe that is unknowable is no fit place for a thinking being. The ideal universe for us is one very much like the universe we inhabit. And I would guess that this is not really much of a coincidence.
Carl Sagan  - Can We know the Universe?’ in M. Gardner (ed.), T


Galactic Center of Our Milky Way

The Hubble Space Telescope, the Spitzer Space Telescope, and the Chandra X-ray Observatory – collaborated to produce an unprecedented image of the central region of our Milky Way galaxy.

Observations using infrared light and X-ray light see through the obscuring dust and reveal the intense activity near the galactic core. The center of the galaxy is located within the bright white region in the upper portion of the image. The entire image covers about one-half a degree, about the same angular width as the full moon.

Each telescope’s contribution is presented in a different color:

  • Yellow represents the near-infrared observations of Hubble. They outline the energetic regions where stars are being born as well as reveal hundreds of thousands of stars.
  • Red represents the infrared observations of Spitzer. The radiation and winds from stars create glowing dust clouds that exhibit complex structures from compact, spherical globules to long, stringy filaments.
  • Blue and violet represents the X-ray observations of Chandra. X-rays are emitted by gas heated to millions of degrees by stellar explosions and by outflows from the supermassive black hole in the galaxy’s center. The bright blue blob toward the bottom of the full field image is emission from a double star system containing either a neutron star or a black hole.

Astronomers at the European Southern Observatory’s Paranal Observatory in Chile have released a breathtaking new photograph showing the central area of our Milky Way galaxy. The photograph shows a whopping 84 million stars in an image measuring 108500×81500, which contains nearly 9 billion pixels.

Crops of the zoomable version.


“We inhabit a universe where atoms are made in the centers of stars; where each second a thousand suns are born; where life is sparked by sunlight and lightning in the airs and waters of youthful planets; where the raw material for biological evolution is sometimes made by the explosion of a star halfway across the Milky Way; where a thing as beautiful as a galaxy is formed a hundred billion times - a Cosmos of quasars and quarks, snowflakes and fireflies, where there may be black holes and other universe and extraterrestrial civilizations whose radio messages are at this moment reaching the Earth.”

                                                                    Carl Sagan, Cosmos