New radio images of our galaxy’s center look like modern abstract art

And the artist is South Africa's unrivaled MeerKAT telescope.
Chris Young
The center of the Milky WayI. Heywood/SARAO

New images of the center of the Milky Way provide a uniquely dramatic perspective of the heart of the galaxy that we call home.

The South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) released new images from its radio telescope, MeerKAT, on Jan. 26, which is the most sensitive of its kind. They provide new insight into supernovae, non-thermal filaments, and the enormous black hole at the galaxy's center. 

Peering into the Milky Way's center

The MeerKAT telescope uses 64 antennae spread over almost five miles (8 km) to capture radio waves. Only radio waves can pierce through the layers of cosmic dust between the Earth and our galaxy's center, meaning MeerKAT is uniquely positioned to provide insight into the densely packed zone. And the newly-released images are an impressive showcase for MeerKAT's power; though they look like abstract impressionistic artworks, they show "outbursting stars, stellar nurseries, and the chaotic region around the 4 million solar mass supermassive black hole that lurks in the center of our Galaxy," according to SARAO.

That bright egg yolk-like object at the center of the image at the top of the page is the black hole at the heart of the Milky Way. The bright yellow color represents the immense amount of radio emissions from material that is being sucked into the black hole.

 New radio images of our galaxy’s center look like modern abstract art
NTFs and the black hole at the Milky Way's center. Source: I. Heywood/SARAO

The red streaks in the image above, meanwhile, are non-thermal filaments (NTFs), enormous magnetized strands only found near the center of the galaxy. The Sauron-like eye is the black hole shown from another perspective. The researchers who pieced the image together published their findings in a paper in the Astrophysical Journal and SARAO is also releasing a public database for the use of other scientists. Included in that database are details on a never-before-observed supernova remnant.

MeerKAT's capabilities are a massive 'leap forward'

The immense cloud in the image below is a supernova remnant, while the bright light on the left is called the "Mouse nebula" due to its resemblance to the small rodent. The incredibly bright spot is made up of a pulsar traveling at a few 100 kilometers per second, explaining the visible trailing tail.

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 New radio images of our galaxy’s center look like modern abstract art
The center of the image shows the remnants of an exploding star. Source: I. Heywood/SARAO

"I've spent a lot of time looking at this image in the process of working on it, and I never get tired of it," says Dr. Ian Heywood from the University of Oxford, and the lead author of the study. "When I show this image to people who might be new to radio astronomy, or otherwise unfamiliar with it, I always try to emphasize that radio imaging hasn't always been this way, and what a leap forward MeerKAT really is in terms of its capabilities. It's been a true privilege to work over the years with colleagues from SARAO who built this fantastic telescope."

It's a testament to the capabilities of the MeerKAT telescope, which is set for a 20-dish expansion costing $54 million. The new images are truly impressive — who knew the center of the Milky Way looked so much like a Radiohead album cover?

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