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New map reveals the Milky Way’s magnetic heart

This first-of-its-kind image offers a detailed look at the magnetic fields within the Central Molecular Zone.
A composite image of the milky way galaxy showing colorful interstellar dust and gas with star fields.
Magnetic fields and dust clouds at the heart of our Milky Way: the first – and last – image of its kind. (Credit: Villanova University/Paré, Karpovich, Chuss (PI), CC BY 4.0)

Look toward Sagittarius. Beyond lies the Central Molecular Zone (CMZ): the cold, dusty heart of our Milky Way. The CMZ contains 60 million solar masses’ worth of particles at -432 degrees Fahrenheit (-258°C). This dust is the stuff from which planets and stars are built — a process that depends on the interaction between the dust and the CMZ’s magnetic fields.

The image below is a major step toward better understanding that process. For the first time, it maps the CMZ’s various magnetic fields and structures of dust.

A detailed look at the dust clouds and magnetic fields in the CMZ. (Credit: Villanova University/Paré, Karpovich, Chuss (PI), CC BY 4.0)

The colors show the interaction between warmer dust clouds (pink), cooler ones (blue), and magnetic fields, indicated by radio filaments (yellow) — mysterious tendrils up to 150 light-years long. By revealing variations in the orientation of magnetic fields across dust clouds (some with fanciful names like The Brick and Three Little Pigs), this map offers a first glimpse at the complex arrangements of dust and magnetism in the CMZ.

The image, which measures nearly 500 light-years across, was produced by Villanova University in Pennsylvania, using data from SOFIA (Strategic Observatory for Infrared Astronomy), NASA’s “spaceplane” (i.e. a Boeing 747 fitted with a 100-inch, or 2.5-m, reflecting telescope).

The data was collected in 2020 as part of project Fireplace (“Far-InfraREd Polarimetric Large Area CMZ Exploration”) during nine flights up to 45,000 feet (13.7 km), above 99% of the Earth’s infrared-blocking atmosphere.

This image is not just the first of its kind, it’s also the last, as SOFIA was decommissioned in 2022.

Strange Maps #1240

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