Starbursts Caught Near The Milky Way's Galactic Center
January 9, 2013

Recent Starbursts Discovered Near The Milky Way’s Galactic Center

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Using the airborne telescope on the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), astronomers have learned that a series of recent starbursts had taken place in the central region of the Milky Way, NASA officials reported on Tuesday.

According to the US space agency, our galaxy´s nucleus is home to a black hole with four million times the mass of the sun. It is orbited by a large disk of dust and gas, and holds multiple exceptionally large star clusters, which they say contain some of the most luminous young stars in the Milky Way.

Both the inner edge of that disk, also known as the circumlunar ring (CNR), and a group of those young stars, which are referred to as the Quintuplet Cluster (QC), are featured in newly released images captured in 2011 using SOFIA´s telescope and the Faint Object Infrared Camera for the SOFIA Telescope (FORCAST) camera.

Those pictures, as well as the studies accompanying them, were presented by their respective research teams -- Ryan Lau of Cornell University and colleagues for the CNR; Matt Hankins of the University of Central Arkansas (UCA) and colleagues for the QC -- this week at the American Astronomical Society's meeting in Long Beach, California.

“The focus of our study has been to determine the structure of the circumnuclear ring with the unprecedented precision possible with SOFIA” Lau said in a statement. “Using these data we can learn about the processes that accelerate and heat the ring.”

“Something big happened in the Milky Way's center within the past 4 million to 6 million years which resulted in several bursts of star formation, creating the Quintuplet Cluster, the Central Cluster, and one other massive star cluster,” added Hankins. “Many other galaxies also have so-called 'starbursts' in their central regions, some associated with central black holes, some not. The Milky Way's center is much nearer than other galaxies, making it easier for us to explore possible connections between the starbursts and the black hole.”

Eric Becklin, the Chief Scientific Advisor for SOFIA, collaborated with the CNR team and said that both the resolution and the spatial coverage of the pictures was “astounding.” He added that they demonstrated “what modern infrared detector arrays can do when flown on SOFIA," and said that he was hopeful that scientists would be able to use this information “to substantially advance our understanding of the environment near a supermassive black hole.”