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SOFIA Spots Recent Starbursts In The Milky Way Galaxy's Center

        SOFIA Spots Recent Starbursts In The Milky Way Galaxy's Center

PR Newswire

WASHINGTON, Jan. 8, 2013

WASHINGTON, Jan. 8, 2013 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ --Researchers using the
Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) have captured new
images of a ring of gas and dust seven light-years in diameter surrounding the
supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, and of a neighboring
cluster of extremely luminous young stars embedded in dust cocoons.

(Logo: http://photos.prnewswire.com/prnh/20081007/38461LOGO )

The images of our galaxy's circumlunar ring (CNR) and its neighboring
quintuplet cluster (QC) are the subjects of two posters presented this week
during the American Astronomical Society's meeting in Long Beach, Calif. Ryan
Lau of Cornell University and his collaborators studied the CNR. Matt Hankins
of the University of Central Arkansas in Conway is lead author of the other
paper, regarding the QC.

SOFIA is a highly modified Boeing 747SP aircraft carrying a telescope with an
effective diameter of 100 inches (2.54 meters) to altitudes as high as 45,000
feet (13.7 kilometers).

The images were obtained during SOFIA flights in 2011 with the Faint Object
Infrared Camera for the SOFIA Telescope (FORCAST) instrument built by a team
with principal investigator Terry Herter of Cornell.

FORCAST offered astronomers the ability to see the CNR and QC regions and
other exotic cosmic features whose light is obscured by water vapor in Earth's
atmosphere and interstellar dust clouds in the mid-plane of the Milky Way.
Neither ground-based observatories on tall mountain peaks nor NASA's orbiting
Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes can see them.

The images may be seen by visiting:

http://www.nasa.gov/sofia

or

http://www.sofia.usra.edu

Each image is a combination of multiple exposures at wavelengths of 20, 32,
and 37 microns.

Figure 1a shows the CNR and Figure 2a shows the QC. The CNR and other exotic
features revealed by SOFIA's FORCAST camera are invisible to Hubble's
near-infrared camera, as shown for comparison in figures 1b and 2b. Figure 3
shows the two fields studied in these papers as square insets on a large-scale
image of the galactic center made by the Spitzer Space Telescope at a
wavelength of 8 microns.

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

The nucleus of the Milky Way is inhabited by a black hole with 4 million times
the mass of the sun and is orbited by a large disk of gas and dust. The ring
seen in Figure 1a is the inner edge of that disk. The galactic center also
hosts several exceptionally large star clusters containing some of the most
luminous young stars in the galaxy, one of which is the Quintuplet Cluster
seen in Figure 2. The combination of SOFIA's airborne telescope with the
FORCAST camera produced the sharpest images of those regions ever obtained at
mid-infrared wavelengths, allowing discernment of new clues about what is
happening near the central black hole.

"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," said Hankins, lead author of the QC paper. "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."

SOFIA Chief Scientific Advisor Eric Becklin, who is working with the CNR
group, determined the location of the galaxy's nucleus as a graduate student
in the 1960s by laboriously scanning a single-pixel infrared detector to map
the central region.

"The resolution and spatial coverage of these images is astounding, showing
what modern infrared detector arrays can do when flown on SOFIA," Becklin
said. "We hope to use these data to substantially advance our understanding of
the environment near a supermassive black hole."

SOFIA is a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center. SOFIA is
based and managed at NASA's Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale,
Calif. NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., manages the SOFIA
science and mission operations in cooperation with the Universities Space
Research Association headquartered in Columbia, Md., and the German SOFIA
Institute at the University of Stuttgart.

For information about SOFIA and its science mission, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/sofia

and

http://www.sofia.usra.edu

and

http://www.dsi.uni-stuttgart.de/index.en.html

and

http://www.dlr.de/en/sofia

SOURCE NASA

Website: http://www.nasa.gov
Contact: J.D. Harrington, Headquarters, Washington, +1-202-358-5241,
j.d.harrington@nasa.gov; Nicholas A. Veronico, SOFIA Science Center, Ames
Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., +1-650-604-4589,
nveronico@sofia.usra.edu
 
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