The Hubble Space Telescope has peered deep into the heart of our Milky Way Galaxy, revealing a tapestry of more than half a million stars, NASA announced Thursday.
A stunning image shows the impressive array of stars. “Except for a few blue foreground stars, the stars are part of the Milky Way’s nuclear star cluster, the most massive and densest star cluster in our galaxy,” explained NASA, in a statement. “So packed with stars, it is equivalent to having a million suns crammed between us and our closest stellar neighbor, Alpha Centauri.”
The center of the Milky Way is located 27,000 light-years away.
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Experts used infrared technology to pierce through dust in our galaxy’s disk that obscured the star cluster. In the image, scientists translated infrared light, which is invisible to human eyes, into colors the eye can see. “The red stars are either embedded or shrouded by intervening dust,” said NASA, explaining that dense clouds of gas and dust are seen in silhouette, appearing dark against the bright background stars. “These clouds are so thick that even Hubble’s infrared capability could not penetrate them,” it said.
The picture, which spans 50 light-years across, is a mosaic stitched from nine separate images from Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3. ‘The “snowstorm” of stars in the image is just the tip of the iceberg: Astronomers estimate that about 10 million stars in this cluster are too faint to be captured in this image,” said NASA.
The space agency explains that the star cluster surrounds the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole, which is about 4 million times the mass of our sun.
The Hubble space telescope, which was launched by NASA in 1990, celebrated its 25th anniversary last year. The telescope is operated by NASA and the European Space Agency.
The telescope recently helped astronomers find one of the largest-ever black holes in giant galaxy NGC 4889, some 300 million light years away.
In February NASA unveiled plans for a powerful new telescope with a view more than 100 times wider than Hubble.
The Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) is designed to help researchers unravel the secrets of dark energy and dark matter, and explore the evolution of the universe, according to NASA.