Astronomers go behind the Milky Way to solve X-ray mystery

August 09, 2001

Through layers of gas and dust that stretch for more than 30,000 light years, astronomers using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory have taken a long, hard look at the plane of the Milky Way galaxy and found that its X-ray glow comes from hot and diffuse gas. The findings, published in the Aug. 10 issue of Science, help to settle a long-standing mystery about the source of the X-ray emission from the galactic plane.

Scientists have debated whether the Milky Way plane's X-ray emission was diffuse light or from individual stars. Armed with Chandra, an international team led Dr. Ken Ebisawa of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., zoomed in on a tiny region of the galactic plane in the constellation Scutum.

"The point sources we saw in the galactic plane were actually active galaxies with bright cores millions of light years behind our galaxy," said Ebisawa. "The number of these sources is consistent with the expected number of extragalactic sources in the background sky. We saw few additional point sources within our galaxy."

The observation marks the deepest X-ray look at the so-called "zone of avoidance" -- a region of space behind which no optical observation has ever been taken because thick dust and gas in the spiral arms of the Milky Way galaxy block out visible radiation. Infrared, radio, and X-rays, however, can penetrate this dust and gas. Detection of diffuse X-rays emanating from the galactic plane, what we call the "Milky Way" in visible light, indicates the presence of plasma gas with temperatures of tens of millions of degrees Celsius.

Gas this hot would escape the gravitational confines of the Milky Way galaxy under normal circumstances. The fact that it still lingers within the galactic plane is the next mystery to solve. One possibility, suggested by Ebisawa is that hot plasma may be confined to the Milky Way by magnetic fields.

The Chandra observation, conducted in February 2000, lasted 28 hours. The team observed what was known to be a "blank" region of the galactic plane where the Japanese X-ray satellite ASCA had previously observed but found no individual X-ray sources.

The team also discovered 36 bright distant galaxies lurking in the background of this section of the galactic plane, while the foreground was devoid of stars or other individual objects emitting X-rays. Chandra, and now the European XMM-Newton satellite, are at long last beginning to collect light from behind our galaxy. X-ray radiation from the 36 newly discovered galaxies passes through the Milky Way on its journey towards Earth. This light, therefore, carries the imprint of all that it passes through and will allow astronomers to measure the distribution and physical condition of matter in our Galaxy.
Participating in the Chandra observation and Science article are Yoshitomo Maeda of Pennsylvania State University; Hidehiro Kaneda of the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science in Japan; and Shigeo Yamauchi of Iwate University in Japan.

Chandra observed the galactic plane with its Advanced CCD Imaging Spectrometer (ACIS) instrument, which was developed for NASA by Pennsylvania State University, University Park, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages the Chandra program, and TRW, Inc., Redondo Beach, Calif., is the prime contractor for the spacecraft. The Smithsonian's Chandra X-ray Center controls science and flight operations from Cambridge, Mass.

Images associated with this release are available at: and

NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center News Center

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