Stars are being born next to the Milky Way's supermassive black hole in a stunning new image by the world's largest airborne telescope

  • The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) took one of the most detailed pictures of the Milky Way's core — the Swan Nebula.
  • The image was presented at the American Astronomical Society (AAS) conference on Tuesday.
  • Scientists have spotted nine new areas where the Swan Nebula is collapsing and new stars are being born amid clouds of gas and dust.
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The world's largest airborne telescope — the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) — just captured the most detailed view of the centre of our galaxy.

The Universities Space Research Association ( USRA) shared this mind-boggling image of the Swan Nebula during the American Astronomical Society (AAS) conference on Tuesday.

These dense clouds of gas and dust at the center of the Swan Nebula are more than 600 lightyears wide NASA

More than 600 light-years wide, the image shows dense clouds of gas and dust that are swirling around each other. It allowed scientists to spot nine new areas where the nebula's clouds are collapsing and where new stars could one day emerge.
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"This is the most detailed view of the nebula we have ever had. It's the first time we can see some of its youngest, massive stars, and start to truly understand how it evolved into the iconic nebula we see today," said USRA's Jim De Buizer


The birth of new stars
The Swan Nebula is more than 5,000 lightyears from Earth in the constellation, Sagittarius — and it's right next to the supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way.

More than a 100 of the massive young stars in our galaxy lie at its core — each multiple times the size of the Sun. But the youngest of them are hidden in clouds of gas. This makes them difficult to spot even with space telescopes. The collective light being given off is so bright that the resulting images look overexposed.
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The most detailed image of the Swan Nebula at the center of the Milky Way galaxy taken by the world’s largest airborne telescope - the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA)<span class="redactor-invisible-space"></span>NASA

SOFIA's Faint Object Infrared Camera (FORCAST) allowed the telescope to peer through the cocoons of dust and gas to see new young generations of stars living within.

Scientists don't know exactly how stars are born. So far, they've been able to ascertain that protostars are the earlier known phase in stellar evolution. This is when a newborn star is so young that it's still feeding off the molecular cloud that surrounds it.

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These protostars have been found in nine new areas where the nebula is collapsing.

The secrets of the Swan Nebula

The image also shows that Swan Nebula didn't always have a swan-like shape. The age of stars across the celestial body vary. The centre of the nebula — seen as blue gas heating the core in the image — is the oldest. It was likely formed first.

The southern region of the Swan Nebula is the youngest. This is where most of the protostars have been spotted.
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The northern area formed sometime in between the two other regions. The radiation and stellar winds from previous generations of stars that have died are scattered there. They prevent the next generation of stars from forming.

The red areas near the edges of the nebula are cold dust, first detected by the Herschel Space Telescope.

The Milky Way's supermassive black hole

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Black holes are at the centre of most galaxies and the Milky Way is no different. Its black hole can be seen near the bottom with waves of fiery-looking gas surrounding it.

However, the Milky Way's black hole is relatively quieter than most other black holes discovered, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

An image taken by SOPHIA last year revealed that the supermassive black hole is surrounded by an ‘invisible' magnetic field — a possible reason for the prevention of activity.

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The ‘invisible’ magnetic field over the Milky Way's supermassive black holeNASA

SOFIA is a Boeing 747SP jetliner carrying a 106-inch diameter telescope. The telescope itself is equipped with cameras, spectrometers and polarimeters. Unlike space-based telescopes, like Hubble, SOFIA gets to land after each flight. This gives scientists the opportunity to continuously monitor and upgrade its instruments.

See also:
Supermassive black hole bigger than 7 billion Suns is spinning so fast that it's close to breaking the laws of physics

NASA's planet-hunter uncovers its first world with two stars 1,300 light-years away

A star that's slowly been getting brighter over the past decades will explode in 2083

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