Heart of the Milky Way to Be Revealed by NASA in Unprecedented Detail

NASA is hoping to reveal what lies at the center of the Milky Way in unprecedented detail by getting the highest ever quality images of the galactic center using the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

The Milky Way is a spiral galaxy and our solar system sits in the Orion Arm, about 26,000 light years from the center—one light year is approximately six trillion miles. At the center of the Milky Way there is a supermassive black hole with a mass about four million times that of our sun. This is surrounded by millions of stars traveling extremely fast. But this whole region is enveloped in interstellar dust, meaning scientists cannot see exactly what is going on. So far, only the brightest stars have been detected.

However, this will soon change, NASA has said. The JWST, which is currently scheduled for launch in 2021, will be able to peer through the dust and send back images of the heart of the Milky Way in "unprecedented detail," the space agency said in a statement. Often, the JWST is referred to as NASA's alien hunting telescope, as its instruments on board will be able to detect biosignatures coming from planets beyond our solar system. This will allow scientists to focus in on planets that may support life—potentially answering one of the most fundamental questions in the universe: are we alone?

However, the JWST will also be used to view the galactic center in infrared, meaning it will be able to see this kind of light coming from the core. "We're only seeing the tip of the iceberg from the ground, Torsten Böker of the European Space Agency and Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), said in a statement. "Webb will be able to study fainter stars and tell us more about the overall stellar population."

Böker is co-investigator on one of the studies planned on the Milky Way's center. It is hoped this research will help scientists understand more about the supermassive black hole that lies there— known as Sagittarius A*. "Even one image from Webb will be the highest quality image ever obtained of the galactic center," Roeland van der Marel, from the STScI and principal investigator on another JWST study.

Sagittarius A* is a fairly quiet black hole, but when clumps of dust nearby get too close and fall in, it can produce flares of light. However, the glow from the black hole's disk has never been detected before. "Detecting the disk around Sagittarius A* with Webb would be a home run," Böker said.

The researchers are also hoping to find out more fundamental questions about how galaxies and black holes form. "So many interesting, strange things happen at the centers of galaxies. We want to find out what's happening in our own," Marcia Rieke, principal investigator on the JWST's Near Infrared Camera, said in a statement.