Milky Way

Black Hole Image Makes History

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Elizabeth Landau

NASA Headquarters, Washington



Scientists have obtained the first image of a black hole, using Event Horizon Telescope observations of the center of the galaxy M87. The image shows a bright ring formed as light bends in the intense gravity around a black hole that is 6.5 billion times more massive than the Sun. Credit: Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration



A black hole and its shadow have been captured in an image for the first time, a historic feat by an international network of radio telescopes called the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). EHT is an international collaboration whose support in the U.S. includes the National Science Foundation.


A black hole is an extremely dense object from which no light can escape. Anything that comes within a black hole’s “event horizon,” its point of no return, will be consumed, never to re-emerge, because of the black hole’s unimaginably strong gravity. By its very nature, a black hole cannot be seen, but the hot disk of material that encircles it shines bright. Against a bright backdrop, such as this disk, a black hole appears to cast a shadow.


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NASA Team Probes Peculiar Age-Defying Star

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An age-defying star designated as IRAS 19312+1950 (arrow) exhibits features characteristic of a very young star and a very old star. The object stands out as extremely bright inside a large, chemically rich cloud of material, as shown in this image from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. A NASA-led team of scientists thinks the star – which is about 10 times as massive as our sun and emits about 20,000 times as much energy – is a newly forming protostar. That was a big surprise because the region had not been known as a stellar nursery before. But the presence of a nearby interstellar bubble, which indicates the presence of a recently formed massive star, also supports this idea. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

For years, astronomers have puzzled over a massive star lodged deep in the Milky Way that shows conflicting signs of being extremely old and extremely young.

Researchers initially classified the star as elderly, perhaps a red supergiant. But a new study by a NASA-led team of researchers suggests that the object, labeled IRAS 19312+1950, might be something quite different — a protostar, a star still in the making.

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Charting the Milky Way From the Inside Out

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Charting the Milky Way From the Inside Out
Imagine trying to create a map ofyour house while confined to only the living room. You might peek through the doors into other rooms or look for light spilling in through the windows. But, in the end, the walls and lack of visibility would largely prevent you from seeing the big picture.

The job of mapping our own Milky Way galaxy from planet Earth, situated about two-thirds of the way out from the galaxy’s center, is similarly difficult. Clouds of dust permeate the Milky Way, blocking our view of the galaxy’s stars. Today, researchers have a suitable map of our galaxy’s spiral structure, but, like early explorers charting new territory, they continue to patiently and meticulously fill in the blanks.

Recently, researchers have turned to a new mapping method that takes advantage of data from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. Using WISE, the research team has discovered more than 400 dust-shrouded nurseries of stars, which trace the shape of our galaxy’s spiral arms. Seven of these “embedded star clusters” are described in a new study published online May 20 in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

“The sun’s location within the dust-obscured galactic disk is a complicating factor to observe the galactic structure,” said Denilso Camargo, lead author of the paper from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil.

The results support the four-arm model of our galaxy’s spiral structure. For the last few years, various methods of charting the Milky Way have largely led to a picture of four spiral arms. The arms are where most stars in the galaxy are born. They are stuffed with gas and dust, the ingredients of stars. Two of the arms, called Perseus and Scutum-Centaurus, seem to be more prominent and jam-packed with stars, while the Sagittarius and Outer arms have as much gas as the other two arms but not as many stars.

The new WISE study finds embedded star clusters in the Perseus, Sagittarius, and Outer arms. Data from the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS), a ground-based predecessor of WISE from NASA, the National Science Foundation and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, helped narrow down the distances to the clusters and pinpoint their location.

Embedded star clusters are a powerful tool for visualizing the whereabouts of spiral arms because the clusters are young, and their stars haven’t yet drifted away and out of the arms. Stars begin their lives in the dense, gas-rich neighborhoods of spiral arms, but they migrate away over time. These embedded star clusters complement other techniques for mapping our galaxy, such as those used by radio telescopes, which detect the dense gas clouds in spiral arms.

“Spiral arms are like traffic jams in that the gas and stars crowd together and move more slowly in the arms. As material passes through the dense spiral arms, it is compressed and this triggers more star formation,” said Camargo.

WISE is ideal for finding the embedded star clusters because its infrared vision can cut through the dust that fills the galaxy and shrouds the clusters. What’s more, WISE scanned the whole sky, so it was able to perform a thorough survey of the shape of our Milky Way. NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope also uses infrared images to map the Milky Way’s territory. Spitzer looks along specific lines of sight and counts stars. The spiral arms will have the densest star populations.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California managed and operated WISE for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The spacecraft was put into hibernation mode in 2011, after it scanned the entire sky twice, thereby completing its main objectives. In September 2013, WISE was reactivated, renamed NEOWISE and assigned a new mission to assist NASA’s efforts to identify potentially hazardous near-Earth objects.
Other authors of the study are: Charles Bonatto and Eduardo Bica, also with the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul.

For more information on WISE, visit:

Previous research from Camargo’s team found two embedded clusters far outside the plane of our Milky Way, 16,000 light-years away. A feature story about that work is online at:

The new WISE study from the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society is online at:

NASA’s NuSTAR Captures Possible ‘Screams’ from Zombie Stars

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NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, has captured a new high-energy X-ray view (magenta) of the bustling center of our Milky Way galaxy. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Peering into the heart of the Milky Way galaxy, NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) has spotted a mysterious glow of high-energy X-rays that, according to scientists, could be the “howls” of dead stars as they feed on stellar companions. 

“We can see a completely new component of the center of our galaxy with NuSTAR’s images,” said Kerstin Perez of Columbia University in New York, lead author of a new report on the findings in the journal Nature. “We can’t definitively explain the X-ray signal yet — it’s a mystery. More work needs to be done.”

The center of our Milky Way galaxy is bustling with young and old stars, smaller black holes and other varieties of stellar corpses — all swarming around a supermassive black hole called Sagittarius A*.

NuSTAR, launched into space in 2012, is the first telescope capable of capturing crisp images of this frenzied region in high-energy X-rays. The new images show a region around the supermassive black hole about 40 light-years across. Astronomers were surprised by the pictures, which reveal an unexpected haze of high-energy X-rays dominating the usual stellar activity.

“Almost anything that can emit X-rays is in the galactic center,” said Perez. “The area is crowded with low-energy X-ray sources, but their emission is very faint when you examine it at the energies that NuSTAR observes, so the new signal stands out.”

Astronomers have four theories to explain the baffling X-ray glow, three of which involve different classes of stellar corpses. When stars die, they don’t always go quietly into the night. Unlike stars like our sun, collapsed dead stars that belong to stellar pairs, or binaries, can siphon matter from their companions. This zombie-like “feeding” process differs depending on the nature of the normal star, but the result may be an eruption of X-rays.

According to one theory, a type of stellar zombie called a pulsar could be at work. Pulsars are the collapsed remains of stars that exploded in supernova blasts. They can spin extremely fast and send out intense beams of radiation. As the pulsars spin, the beams sweep across the sky, sometimes intercepting Earth, like lighthouse beacons.

“We may be witnessing the beacons of a hitherto hidden population of pulsars in the galactic center,” said co-author Fiona Harrison of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, principal investigator of NuSTAR. “This would mean there is something special about the environment in the very center of our galaxy.”

Other possible culprits include heavy-set stellar corpses called white dwarfs, which are the collapsed, burned-out remains of stars not massive enough to explode in supernovae. Our sun is such a star, and is destined to become a white dwarf in about five billion years. Because these white dwarfs are much denser than they were in their youth, they have stronger gravity and can produce higher-energy X-rays than normal. Another theory points to small black holes that slowly feed off their companion stars, radiating X-rays as material plummets down into their bottomless pits.

Alternatively, the source of the high-energy X-rays might not be stellar corpses at all, astronomers say, but rather a diffuse haze of charged particles called cosmic rays. The cosmic rays might originate from the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy as it devours material. When the cosmic rays interact with surrounding, dense gas, they emit X-rays.

However, none of these theories match what is known from previous research, leaving the astronomers largely stumped.

“This new result just reminds us that the galactic center is a bizarre place,” said co-author Chuck Hailey of Columbia University. “In the same way people behave differently walking on the street instead of jammed on a crowded rush-hour subway, stellar objects exhibit weird behavior when crammed in close quarters near the supermassive black hole.” 

The team says more observations are planned. Until then, theorists will be busy exploring the above scenarios or coming up with new models to explain what could be giving off the puzzling high-energy X-ray glow.

“Every time that we build small telescopes like NuSTAR, which improve our view of the cosmos in a particular wavelength band, we can expect surprises like this,” said Paul Hertz, the astrophysics division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

NuSTAR is a Small Explorer mission led by Caltech and managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

More information is online at: 

NASA’s Spitzer Spots Planet Deep Within Our Galaxy

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This artist’s map of the Milky Way shows the location of one of the farthest known exoplanets, lying 13,000 light-years away. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has teamed up with a telescope on the ground to find a remote gas planet about 13,000 light-years away, making it one of the most distant planets known.

The discovery demonstrates that Spitzer — from its unique perch in space — can be used to help solve the puzzle of how planets are distributed throughout our flat, spiral-shaped Milky Way galaxy. Are they concentrated heavily in its central hub, or more evenly spread throughout its suburbs?

“We don’t know if planets are more common in our galaxy’s central bulge or the disk of the galaxy, which is why these observations are so important,” said Jennifer Yee of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a NASA Sagan fellow. Yee is the lead author of one of three new studies that appeared recently in the Astrophysical Journal describing a collaboration between astronomers using Spitzer and the Polish Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment, or OGLE. 

OGLE’s Warsaw Telescope at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile scans the skies for planets using a method called microlensing. A microlensing event occurs when one star happens to pass in front of another, and its gravity acts as a lens to magnify and brighten the more distant star’s light. If that foreground star happens to have a planet in orbit around it, the planet might cause a blip in the magnification. 

Astronomers are using these blips to find and characterize planets tens of thousands of light-years away in the central bulge of our galaxy, where star crossings are more common. Our sun is located in the suburbs of the galaxy, about two-thirds of the way out from the center. The microlensing technique as a whole has yielded about 30 planet discoveries so far, with the farthest residing about 25,000 light-years away. 

“Microlensing experiments are already detecting planets from the solar neighborhood to almost the center of the Milky Way,” said co-author Andrew Gould of The Ohio State University, Columbus. “And so they can, in principle, tell us the relative efficiency of planet formation across this huge expanse of our galaxy.”

Microlensing complements other planet-hunting tools, such as NASA’s Kepler mission, which has found more than 1,000 planets closer to home. But it faces one key problem: This method can’t always precisely narrow down the distance to the stars and planets being observed. While a passing star may magnify the light of a more distant star, it rarely can be seen itself, making the task of measuring how far away it is challenging. 

Of the approximately 30 planets discovered with microlensing so far, roughly half cannot be pinned down to a precise location. The result is like a planetary treasure map lacking in X’s.

That’s where Spitzer can help out, thanks to its remote Earth-trailing orbit. Spitzer circles our sun, and is currently about 128 million miles (207 million kilometers) away from Earth. That’s father from Earth than Earth is from our sun. When Spitzer watches a microlensing event simultaneously with a telescope on Earth, it sees the star brighten at a different time, due to the large distance between the two telescopes and their unique vantage points. This technique is generally referred to as parallax.

“Spitzer is the first space telescope to make a microlens parallax measurement for a planet,” said Yee. “Traditional parallax techniques that employ ground-based telescopes are not as effective at such great distances.” 

Using space telescopes to observe microlensing events is tricky. Ground telescopes send out alerts to the astronomy community when an event starts, but the activity can quickly fade, lasting on average about 40 days. The Spitzer team has scrambled to start microlensing campaigns as soon as three days after receiving an alert. 

In the case of the newfound planet, the duration of the microlensing event happened to be unusually long, about 150 days. Both Spitzer and OGLE’s telescopes detected the telltale planetary blip in the magnification, with Spitzer seeing it 20 days earlier.

This time delay between viewing of the event by OGLE and Spitzer was used to calculate the distance to the star and its planet. Knowing the distance allowed the scientists also to determine the mass of the planet, which is about half that of Jupiter.

Spitzer has eyed 22 other microlensing events in collaboration with OGLE and several other ground-based telescopes. While these observations have not turned up new planets, the data are essential to learning the population statistics of stars and planets at the heart of our galaxy. Spitzer will watch approximately 120 additional microlensing events this summer.

“We’ve mainly explored our own solar neighborhood so far,” said Sebastiano Calchi Novati, a Visiting Sagan Fellow at NASA’s Exoplanet Science Institute at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. “Now we can use these single lenses to do statistics on planets as a whole and learn about their distribution in the galaxy.”

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Spacecraft operations are based at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, Littleton, Colorado. Data are archived at the Infrared Science Archive housed at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at Caltech. Caltech manages JPL for NASA. 

Fast Facts:

  • Space observatory discovers one of the most distant planets known
  • Research helps map whereabouts of exoplanets throughout the Milky Way

For more information about Spitzer, visit: