Milky Way: New Telescope Captures Clearest View Yet of Our Galaxy's Fiery Center

An advanced new radio telescope, known as MeerKAT, has begun operations—and it has already captured a spectacular image that is the clearest view of our galaxy's center to date.

The picture reveals, in incredible detail, a fiery region surrounding the supermassive black hole that lies at the heart of the Milky Way, around 25,000 light-years away.

The view shows a host of features that have never been seen before, in addition to providing a better look at previously known supernova remnants, star-forming regions and mysterious filament-like structures which are found near the central black hole but nowhere else in the galaxy.

These filament structures were first discovered in the 1980s, however, their origin still puzzles scientists.

“This image is remarkable”, Farhad Yusef-Zadeh, a leading expert on these structures from Northwestern University, Illinois, said in a statement. “It shows so many features never before seen, including compact sources associated with some of the filaments, that it could provide the key to cracking the code and solve this three-decade riddle.”

The colors in the image correspond to the brightness of the radio waves that MeerKAT can detect, ranging from red for the faintest emissions, to orange, yellow, then white for the strongest emissions.

MeerKAT_Galactic-Centre_High-Res
This image, based on observations made with South Africa’s MeerKAT radio telescope, shows the clearest view yet of the central regions of our galaxy. SARAO

The new image, which corresponds to an area of approximately 1,000 light-years by 500 light-years, is just one of several new views of the universe captured by MeerKAT,which consists of 64 separate dishes in the Karoo region of South Africa.

The new telescope is an ideal candidate for imaging the center of the Milky Way—a region of space that is notoriously difficult to observe because it lies behind the constellation Sagittarius and is enshrouded by clouds of gas and dust.

MeerKAT can detect radio wavelengths that penetrate these clouds. Furthermore, its southern hemisphere location means that the galaxy's center passes overhead and is visible for almost 12 hours each day. It is also more sensitive than comparable telescopes, due to its high number of antennas, enabling MeerKAT to provide unique views of the universe.

“We wanted to show the science capabilities of this new instrument,” said Fernando Camilo, chief scientist of the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), which built and operates MeerKAT.

“The center of the galaxy was an obvious target: Unique, visually striking and full of unexplained phenomena—but also notoriously hard to image using radio telescopes. Although it's early days with MeerKAT, and a lot remains to be optimized, we decided to go for it—and were stunned by the results.”