Center of the Milky Way
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Center of the Milky Way

October 23, 2005

At the center of our Milky Way Galaxy lies a black hole with over 2 million times the mass of the Sun. Once a controversial claim, this astounding conclusion is now virtually inescapable and based on observations of stars orbiting very near the galactic center.

Using one of the Paranal Observatory's very large telescopes and a sophisticated infrared camera, astronomers patiently followed the orbit of a particular star, designated S2, as it came within about 17 light-hours of the center of the Milky Way (about 3 times the radius of Pluto's orbit). Their results convincingly show that S2 is moving under the influence of the enormous gravity of an unseen object that must be extremely compact -- a supermassive black hole.

This deep near-infrared image shows the crowded inner 2 light-years of the Milky Way with the exact position of the galactic center indicated by arrows. The ability to track stars so close to the galactic center can accurately measure the black hole's mass and perhaps even provide an unprecedented test of Einstein's theory of gravity as astronomers watch a star orbit a supermassive black hole.

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