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A closer view of our galaxy's center.

By combining high resolution and high sensitivity, astronomers have produced the most revealing infrared images ever made of our galaxy's star-packed core. Using the European Southern Observatory's New Technology Telescope in La Serena, Chile, German researchers imaged about 340 bright stars within 1.3 light-years of the Milky Way's center, resolving features as small as 0.02 light-year across. Andreas Eckart and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching report their findings in the April 20 ASTROPHYSICAL JOURNAL LETTERS.

The bright stars they detected at two near-infrared wavelengths are just a hint of the total number of stars that reside at the galaxy's center. Eckart's team used infrared detectors because visible-light emissions from these stars are absorbed by surrounding dust and thus don't reach Earth.

Using the new images and previous estimates of stellar velocities at the center of the galaxy, Eckart and his co-workers calculate that the heart of the Milky Way contains about 1 million stars per cubic light-year -- several hundred times the density of other star-packed regions in the galaxy.

The high density could explain a puzzling feature, notes Eckart. His team identified many of the imaged stars as blue supergiants. These massive stars survive for only a few million years and thus must have been born recently in order to be seen at all. Yet the galactic center lacks the dense gas clouds needed to form new stars. The German astronomers suggest that the high rate of collisions within the densely packed star cluster could create the blue supergiants from existing stars.
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Title Annotation:infrared images of Milky Way core
Publication:Science News
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:May 22, 1993
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