AAS 3: Incredible map of Milky Way

By Phil Plait | January 5, 2009 2:05 pm

Astronomers using the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes have just released an incredible image of the center of the Milky Way:

Hubble and Spitzer map of Milky Way Center. Credit: NASA, ESA, and Q.D. Wang
(University of Massachusetts, Amherst), Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and S. Stolovy
(Spitzer Science Center/Caltech)

Wow. Click to get access to much higher-res versions that will embiggen your brain. They have HUGE versions too.

The image is in the infrared, showing piles of warm gas and dust that litter the galactic center. The weird structures are carved out by massive star winds, supernova explosions, bursts of star formation, and more. Lurking in this image, far too small to be seen, is the supermassive black hole at the heart of our galaxy. Even though our past and future are intertwined — the black hole formed around the same time the galaxy did, and evidence is that they helped shape each other — the black hole is invisible. It’s smaller than our solar system, and this map is millions of times wider (300 x 115 light years); the black hole is far smaller than a pixel on this scale.

To get an idea of the scale of this image, here’s a closeup on the lower left portion:

There’s so much to see! The fingers of stalagmite-looking gas on the left are actually columns of gas light years long being eroded by the winds of massive stars, probably that bright cluster to the right of the fingers. On the right is a bright star surrounded by a halo of gas. What’s that? I’m not sure; it’s probably another just-born massive star carving out a bubble of gas around it. That bubble is several light years across!

And just look at the sheer number of stars in the image! It’s hard to grasp just how big a number 200 billion is, but that’s how many stars are in the galaxy. There are countless thousands in this one image, and it represents a tiny, tiny fraction of our galaxy.


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (32)

  1. Grand Lunar

    I can only echo your thought, Phil: WOW!

    Yey, I’m the first post!

  2. Todd W.

    Now if only there were a detailed, vectored image of the entire galaxy so we could zoom from the very edge through to the blackhole at the center. That would be neat.

  3. This image is going to be my wallpaper now!
    It’s TOO great!

  4. blax


    But…… Does anyone else see Eddie (the ‘ead) in the second image?


  5. Check out that giant rabbit pareidolia on the right side of the image. The bright white area in the lower right section is the face and the ears are defined by the dark loops above.

    Gas cloud shas cloud, we have seen the face of God and she is a giant celestial rabbit!

  6. Oliver

    @Meng I don’t see the rabbit, but I see a tiger cub in the second image.

    @Phil–awesome images, thanks for this. (Totally NOT Delete-per-nom. @darkolives.)

  7. IBY

    Yow! That is ginormous!

  8. firemancarl

    Are the stars in these pictures too close to the galactic core to have life sustaining planets near by?

  9. Andrew Skegg

    This is just incredible.

  10. DaveS

    Even if the sub-pixel supermassive black hole can’t be directly seen, surely the effects of it should be visible on a light-year scale, right? I mean, if a *star* can scavenge the gas from an area, surely a black hole with (thousands, millions?) times the mass should have even more effect, right?

  11. DrFlimmer

    Awesome, absolutely!

  12. Kristin C

    NICE. How can I not wallpaper this.

    *downloads the ginormous resolution one*

  13. AstronomyCast is streaming the AAS meeting in Long Beach live right now: http://www.ustream.tv/channel/astronomy-cast-live-%3A-press-conference-coverage
    Maybe Phil Plait will be there?

  14. My god… it’s full of stars.

  15. Logan

    On the bottom right side of the large image, there is a bright area; what is it?

  16. egbert

    er… I think you have the picture upside down :-)

  17. You should see this thing up close and personal. They’ve printed it out and put it up in the exhibit hall and it’s like 100 feet long… very, very, very pretty!

    yeah, I”m here and blogging it too… and we MISS you Phil!!!

  18. ctcoker

    The bubble you mention may be a shell of gas ejected from the star; the rather obvious bits of nebula and star in the middle of the closeup are the Pistol Star and associated Nebula, which formed that way.

  19. Annie M


    You’ve gone and hurt my brain again! Damn you Phil Plait! Damn you to heck!

    Srsly, what a beautiful picture. Just when I think I have the ginormity of the galaxy pegged, I see another one of these spectacular images.

    I wonder though, is it just me that gets so totally MOVED by pictures like this? I mean inwardly bounce of the walls in excitement, but outwardly just a goofy smile?

    I am so grateful that we live in a time when we are fortunate to see such images.

  20. Victor Bogado

    Even if the blackhole is invisible he’s direction is in the image, isn’t? I would guess that, paradoxically, he would be in the large white blob on the right where the density of stars seems to grow, am I right? (be kind I am not an astronomer, not even an amateur) 😉

  21. Law Mom

    Love this picture. I have to share…

    Occasionally we drive to Phoenix on US 93, which runs through the Arizona desert for over 100 miles between towns, so there is zero light pollution and virtually no humidity, and we always pull over to look at the stars. Just last week we did this again, and sheer number of visible stars and the band of the Milky Way were just breathtaking. My kids were absolutely thrilled, poor things having seen the star-filled sky only a handful of times.

  22. Mchl

    Does anyone else see Martians in blue bodysuits here?

    Pure awesomeness! You think I could pick up some girls with this picture?

  23. space cadet

    ‘Lurking in this image, far too small to be seen, is the supermassive black hole at the heart of our galaxy.’ I understand we can’t see it, but where is it? Is it at the tip of the aforementioned rabbit’s ear? Is it up in the left hand corner? Smack dab in the middle? Anybody out there know?

    As for 200 billion stars being a hard number to grasp, we here in the US of A can just think of them as dollars and compare them with what we’re spending to save our failed banking industury. Only 200 billion stars? Huh!



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