Look Over Here…
It may come as a surprise to folks to learn that we on Earth don’t live in the middle of the Milky Way Galaxy. We actually live out in the suburbs, about 26,000 light-years away from all the action at the center of our stellar city. That’s actually a good thing, because from all accounts, the core of the Milky Way has a black hole or two, and a whole lot of starburst activity and other stuff going on, some of it not very healthy to be around. Those aren’t conditions conducive to a nice quiet life on a water-bearing world such as ours.
Nonetheless, like urban folk all over the world, sometimes we get an itch to see the “downtown” area with its bright lights and excitement. So, we try to look at the center of the galaxy, only to find that it’s hidden by dust clouds. In northern hemisphere summer, you can go out a couple of hours or so after sunset and look south toward the constellation Sagittarius (shown in the image above from Wikipedia). Just off the tip of the spout in the teapot shape of Sagittarius is where the center of the Milky Way is located. The bright clouds are stars that lie between us and the core of the galaxy, which is hidden behind dust clouds. For folks in the southern hemisphere, Sagittarius is going to be overhead or even north of overhead (depending on where you are). But, no matter where you live, if you can get outside and take a gander at Sagittarius, you’ll be looking toward the heart of our home galaxy.
Now, it turns out we can look through that dust if we use a telescope equipped with infrared detectors. Infrared light CAN get through the dust. The image at left is from the Spitzer Space Telescope, and it shows the core of the galaxy-the stuff we can’t see with our visible-light eyes. There are hundreds of millions of stars packed into that scene, along with dark dust clouds that even infrared light couldn’t pierce.
It’s kind of fascinating to go out and look up at that region of the sky, which seems rather placid in visible light. Yet, behind all those dust clouds are some fascinating events taking place. Think about it when you go out to check out the center of our galaxy when you’re stargazing over the next couple of months.