ESO telescope images stunning central region of Milky Way, finds ancient star burst

December 16, 2019

ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT) has observed the central part of the Milky Way with spectacular resolution and uncovered new details about the history of star birth in our galaxy. Thanks to the new observations, astronomers have found evidence for a dramatic event in the life of the Milky Way: a burst of star formation so intense that it resulted in over a hundred thousand supernova explosions.

"Our unprecedented survey of a large part of the Galactic centre has given us detailed insights into the formation process of stars in this region of the Milky Way," says Rainer Schödel from the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia in Granada, Spain, who led the observations. "Contrary to what had been accepted up to now, we found that the formation of stars has not been continuous," adds Francisco Nogueras-Lara, who led two new studies of the Milky Way central region while at the same institute in Granada.

In the study, published today in Nature Astronomy, the team found that about 80% of the stars in the Milky Way central region formed in the earliest years of our galaxy, between eight and 13.5 billion years ago. This initial period of star formation was followed by about six billion years during which very few stars were born. This was brought to an end by an intense burst of star formation around one billion years ago when, over a period of less than 100 million years, stars with a combined mass possibly as high as a few tens of million Suns formed in this central region.

"The conditions in the studied region during this burst of activity must have resembled those in 'starburst' galaxies, which form stars at rates of more than 100 solar masses per year," says Nogueras-Lara, who is now based at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany. At present, the whole Milky Way is forming stars at a rate of about one or two solar masses per year.

"This burst of activity, which must have resulted in the explosion of more than a hundred thousand supernovae, was probably one of the most energetic events in the whole history of the Milky Way," he adds. During a starburst, many massive stars are created; since they have shorter lifespans than lower-mass stars, they reach the end of their lives much faster, dying in violent supernova explosions.

This research was possible thanks to observations of the Galactic central region done with ESO's HAWK-I instrument on the VLT in the Chilean Atacama Desert. This infrared-sensitive camera peered through the dust to give us a remarkably detailed image of the Milky Way's central region, published in October in Astronomy & Astrophysics by Nogueras-Lara and a team of astronomers from Spain, the US, Japan and Germany. The stunning image shows the galaxy's densest region of stars, gas and dust, which also hosts a supermassive black hole, with an angular resolution of 0.2 arcseconds. This means the level of detail picked up by HAWK-I is roughly equivalent to seeing a football (soccer ball) in Zurich from Munich, where ESO's headquarters are located.

This image is the first release of the GALACTICNUCLEUS survey. This programme relied on the large field of view and high angular resolution of HAWK-I on ESO's VLT to produce a beautifully sharp image of the central region of our galaxy. The survey studied over three million stars, covering an area corresponding to more than 60 000 square light-years at the distance of the Galactic centre (one light-year is about 9.5 trillion kilometres).
More information

This research was presented in the paper "GALACTICNUCLEUS: A high angular resolution JHKs imaging survey of the Galactic Centre: II. First data release of the catalogue and the most detailed CMDs of the GC" published in Astronomy & Astrophysics and in "Early formation and recent starburst activity in the nuclear disc of the Milky Way" to appear in Nature Astronomy (doi: 10.1038/s41550-019-0967-9).

The team of the Astronomy & Astrophysics paper is composed of F. Nogueras-Lara (Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía, Granada, Spain [IAA-CSIC]), R. Schödel (IAA-CSIC), A. T. Gallego-Calvente (IAA-CSIC), H. Dong (IAA-CSIC), E. Gallego-Cano (IAA and Centro Astronómico Hispano-Alemán, Almería, Spain), B. Shahzamanian (IAA-CSIC), J. H. V. Girard (Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, USA), S. Nishiyama (Miyagi University of Education, Sendai, Japan), F. Najarro (Departamento de Astrofísica, Centro de Astrobiología CAB (CSIC-INTA), Torrejón de Ardoz, Spain), N. Neumayer (Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, Heidelberg, Germany).

The team of the Nature Astronomy paper is composed of F. Nogueras-Lara (Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía, Granada, Spain [IAA-CSIC]), R. Schödel (IAA-CSIC), A. T. Gallego-Calvente (IAA-CSIC), E. Gallego-Cano (IAA-CSIC), B. Shahzamanian (IAA-CSIC), H. Dong (IAA-CSIC), N. Neumayer (Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, Heidelberg, Germany), M. Hilker (European Southern Observatory, Garching bei München, Germany), F. Najarro (Departamento de Astrofísica, Centro de Astrobiología, Torrejón de Ardoz, Spain), S. Nishiyama (Miyagi University of Education, Sendai, Japan), A. Feldmeier-Krause (The Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics. The University of Chicago, Chicago, US), J. H. V. Girard (Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, USA) and S. Cassisi (INAF-Astronomical Observatory of Abruzzo, Teramo, Italy).

ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world's most productive ground-based astronomical observatory by far. It has 16 Member States: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, along with the host state of Chile and with Australia as a Strategic Partner. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope and its world-leading Very Large Telescope Interferometer as well as two survey telescopes, VISTA working in the infrared and the visible-light VLT Survey Telescope. Also at Paranal ESO will host and operate the Cherenkov Telescope Array South, the world's largest and most sensitive gamma-ray observatory. ESO is also a major partner in two facilities on Chajnantor, APEX and ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. And on Cerro Armazones, close to Paranal, ESO is building the 39-metre Extremely Large Telescope, the ELT, which will become "the world's biggest eye on the sky".


* Research paper (Nature Astronomy) -

* Research paper (Astronomy & Astrophysics) -

* Photos of the VLT -


Francisco Nogueras-Lara
Max Planck Institute for Astronomy
Heidelberg, Germany
Tel: +49 6221 528-393

Rainer Schödel
Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía (IAA-CSIC)
Granada, Spain
Tel: +34 958 230 529

Bárbara Ferreira
ESO Public Information Officer
Garching bei München, Germany
Tel: +49 89 3200 6670
Cell: +49 151 241 664 00


Related Star Formation Articles from Brightsurf:

Low-metallicity globular star cluster challenges formation models
On the outskirts of the nearby Andromeda Galaxy, researchers have unexpectedly discovered a globular cluster (GC) - a massive congregation of relic stars - with a very low abundance of chemical elements heavier than hydrogen and helium (known as its metallicity), according to a new study.

Astronomers turn up the heavy metal to shed light on star formation
Astronomers from The University of Western Australia's node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) have developed a new way to study star formation in galaxies from the dawn of time to today.

New observations of black hole devouring a star reveal rapid disk formation
When a star passes too close to a supermassive black hole, tidal forces tear it apart, producing a bright flare of radiation as material from the star falls into the black hole.

How galaxies die: New insights into the quenching of star formation
Astronomers studying galaxy evolution have long struggled to understand what causes star formation to shut down in massive galaxies.

The cosmic commute towards star and planet formation
Interconnected gas flows reveal how star-forming gas is assembled in galaxies.

Star formation project maps nearby interstellar clouds
Astronomers have captured new, detailed maps of three nearby interstellar gas clouds containing regions of ongoing high-mass star formation.

Scientists discover pulsating remains of a star in an eclipsing double star system
Scientists from the University of Sheffield have discovered a pulsating ancient star in a double star system, which will allow them to access important information on the history of how stars like our Sun evolve and eventually die.

Distant milky way-like galaxies reveal star formation history of the universe
Thousands of galaxies are visible in this radio image of an area in the Southern Sky, made with the MeerKAT telescope.

Cascades of gas around young star indicate early stages of planet formation
What does a gestating baby planet look like? New research in Nature by a team including Carnegie's Jaehan Bae investigated the effects of three planets in the process of forming around a young star, revealing the source of their atmospheres.

Massive exoplanet orbiting tiny star challenges planet formation theory
Astronomers have discovered a giant Jupiter-like exoplanet in an unlikely location -- orbiting a small red dwarf star.

Read More: Star Formation News and Star Formation Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to