The center of the Milky Way looks like contemporary art in this image

An image that looks like a trippy Eye of Sauron or a splatter of modern art is actually a detailed new look at the chaotic center of the Milky Way, as seen in radio wavelengths.

The image was taken with the MeerKAT radio telescope network in South Africa over the course of three years and 200 hours of observation. It combines 20 separate images in one mosaic, with the bright, star-dense galactic plane extending horizontally. The MeerKAT team describes the image in an article to be published in the Astrophysical Journal.

MeerKAT has captured radio waves from several astronomical treasures, including supernovae, stellar nurseries, and the energetic region around the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy (SN: 08/31/21; SN: 09/17/19). A puffy supernova remnant can be seen in the bottom right of the image, and the supermassive black hole appears as the bright orange “eye” in the center.

The supermassive black hole Sagittarius A*, which sits at the center of the Milky Way, glows in the lower center of this close-up image from the MeerKAT radio telescope. Mysterious thin filaments accentuate the center of the galaxy.I.Heywood/SARAO

Other intriguing features are the many wispy-looking radio filaments that slice mostly vertically through the image. These filaments, a handful of which were first spotted in the 1980s, are created by accelerated electrons spinning in a magnetic field and creating a radio glow. But the filaments are difficult to explain because there is no obvious motor to accelerate the particles.

“They were a headache. They’re still a headache,” says astrophysicist Farhad Yusef-Zadeh of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, who discovered the filaments by chance as a graduate student.

Previously, scientists knew so few filaments that they could only study features one at a time. Now MeerKAT has revealed hundreds of them, says Yusef-Zadeh. Study the strands all together could help reveal their secretshe and his colleagues report in a forthcoming article in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. “We’re definitely a little closer to seeing what these guys are talking about,” he said.

The observatory has also released the data behind the imagery, so that other scientists can perform their own analyses. “There’s going to be a lot of science to come,” says Yusef-Zadeh.

Dora W. Clawson