Galactic Center of Milky Way observed by James Webb Telescope

September 25, 2022

This week James Webb Telescope adjusted its focus to view Galcen - Galactic center of our Milky way galaxy. James Webb Telescope spent hours gathering data on Galactic center on September 19, 2022.  

The rotational and barycentric center of the Milky Way galaxy is known as the Galactic Center. Sagittarius A*, a compact radio source that is almost perfectly at the galactic rotational center, is the galaxy's central massive object and is a supermassive black hole with a mass of roughly 4 million solar masses. The Milky Way's brightest points, the Butterfly Cluster (M6) or the star Shaula, are visually close to the Galactic Center, which is roughly 26,000 light-years from Earth in the direction of the constellations Sagittarius, Ophiuchus, and Scorpius. To the south of Galcen is the Pipe Nebula. 

Within one parsec of the Galactic Center, there are about 10 million stars, most of which are red giants. There is also a sizeable population of enormous supergiants and Wolf-Rayet stars that resulted from star formation in the area about 1 million years ago. Within the considerably larger galactic bulge, the core stars make up a very minor portion.

Clouds of obscuring dust and gas shield the center of our Milky Way galaxy from the inquisitive eyes of optical observatories.  The infrared cameras on the Spitzer Space Telescope, however, can see through much of the dust in this breathtaking scene and has previously been able to identify the stars in the dense galactic center region. A significantly enhanced infrared vision will be available with James Webb Space Telescope, giving it the ability to reveal smaller stars and finer features.

A 4 million times more massive black hole than our Sun is located in the heart of our galaxy, surrounded by millions of stars moving at breakneck speed. Extreme ultraviolet and X-ray rays flood this hostile environment. However, a large portion of this activity is hidden from our view because it is covered in interstellar dust.

The James Webb Space Telescope from NASA is built to observe the universe in infrared light, which is not visible to the human eye but is crucial for observing celestial objects covered in dust. Infrared light that has pierced the dusty shroud will be collected by Webb after launch, showing the galactic center in unprecedented detail.

Composite infrared image of the center of our Milky Way galaxy, spans 600+ light-years across.

Credit: NASA/SOFIA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/Herschel

NASA has obtained an incredibly clear infrared image of the Milky Way galaxy's nucleus. This panoramic image, which spans a distance of more than 600 light-years, reveals details within the dense swirls of gas and dust in high resolution, opening the way for further investigation into the processes involved in the formation of massive stars and what fuels the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy. 

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, is the largest airborne telescope in the world. This modified Boeing 747 was flying high in the atmosphere when it focused its infrared camera, FORCAST (the Faint Object Infrared Camera for the SOFIA Telescope), at heated galactic material that was generating light at wavelengths that other telescopes could not see. The image combines SOFIA's fresh view of warm regions with earlier information revealing extremely hot and cold material from the Spitzer Space Telescope and the Herschel Space Observatory of the European Space Agency. 

With James Webb Telescope gathering additional data on our galactic center, we will soon have more information about the Milky Way Galaxy's nucleus.