Image: Milky Way
Stephane Guisard
This image, showing the center of the Milky Way, from the constellation Sagittarius to the constellation Scorpius, was taken by amateur astronomer and astrophotographer Stephane Guisard.
By Senior writer
updated 9/22/2009 8:44:40 PM ET 2009-09-23T00:44:40

New photographs of the center of the Milky Way reveal the chaotic environment at the heart of our galaxy, where a supermassive black hole is thought to lurk.

The close-up views come from two recent projects — one undertaken by an amateur astronomer.

Stephane Guisard, an engineer at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile, used his personal 10-cm telescope to take 1,200 individual images over 29 nights during his free time. He then combined the photos, which took a total of more than 200 hours of exposure time, into a stunning mosaic image of the Milky Way's center.

The vista reveals an area of the sky spanning from the constellation Sagittarius to the constellation Scorpius. Running through the image is the dusty track of the Milky Way's disk — the dense Frisbee shape that contains the spiral arms of the galaxy. Colorful nebulae — including the pink cloud of the Lagoon Nebula (also known as Messier 8) — where furious star formation is occurring — dot the scene.

"The area I have depicted in this image is an incredibly rich region of the sky, and the one I find most beautiful," Guisard said.

Guisard's image was released as part of ESO's Gigagalaxy Zoom project, which aims to connect images of the sky as seen with the naked eye, to close-up views taken with amateur and professional telescopes. Members of the public can explore the connected images online at gigagalaxyzoom.org to zoom in on the sky in extreme detail.

Another new look at the heart of the Milky Way comes from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory. The deep image, a mosaic of images taken during 88 individual observation sessions, reveals the area around our galaxy's humongous central black hole, Sagittarius A*. The region is clouded with diffuse X-ray light from young stars, dying stars, and even emerged poured out by the accretion disk of material falling onto Sagittarius A*.

Image: Galactic center
NASA / CXC / UMass / D. Wang et al.
A new color-coded image of the Milky Way's center highlights X-ray emissions from gas that has been heated by stellar explosions as well as outflows powered by our galaxy's central black hole. Click on the image for a larger version.

The images also show mysterious filaments, or strands of X-ray light that scientists think represent large magnetic structures interacting with streams of very energetic electrons released by rapidly spinning neutron stars.

X-rays provide a window into this dramatic inner world, much of which is shrouded from normal light by a thick veil of gas and dust. The new data was released at the start of a symposium in Boston called "Chandra's First Decade of Discovery."

The X-ray space telescope launched into orbit in July 1999.

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