A mega new telescope has captured the clearest view to date of the center of our Milky Way. The telescope dubbed as MeerkAT reveals extraordinary detail in the region surrounding the supermassive black hole at the center of our Milky Way Galaxy. This is one of several very exciting new views of the Universe already observed by the telescope.
Fernando Camilo, chief scientist of the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) said, “We wanted to show the science capabilities of this new instrument. The center of the galaxy was an obvious target: unique, visually striking and full of unexplained phenomena – but also notoriously hard to image using radio telescopes.”
The center of the Milky Way, 25,000 light-years from Earth and lying behind the group of stars Sagittarius (the “Teapot”), is perpetually covered by intervening clouds of gas and residue, making it undetectable from Earth utilizing normal telescopes. In any case, infrared, X-beam, and specifically, radio wavelengths infiltrate the darkening residue and open a window into this unmistakable area with its novel 4 million solar mass black hole.
MeerKAT consists of 64 antennas (or dishes), every 13.5 meters in diameter, located on baselines (distances between antenna pairs) of up to 8 km. The dishes are of a highly efficient design with up to four cryogenic receiver systems operating in different bands of the radio spectrum. The first installed set of receivers operates between frequencies of 900 MHz and 1670 MHz.
The vast amounts of data from the 64 dishes (up to 275 Gbytes per second) are processed in real time by a “correlator”, followed by a “science processor”, both purpose-built. After further offline analysis, images of the radio sky are generated. Eventually, MeerKAT will be incorporated into Phase 1 of the SKA-MID telescope.
Farhad Yusef-Zadeh of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois said, “This image is remarkable. These long and narrow magnetized filaments were discovered in the 1980s using the Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope in New Mexico, but their origin has remained a mystery. The MeerKAT image has such clarity.”
He continued, “It shows so many features never before seen, including compact sources associated with some of the filaments, that it could provide the key to cracking the code and solve this three-decade riddle. MeerKAT now provides an unsurpassed view of this unique region of our galaxy. It’s an exceptional achievement, congratulations to our South African colleagues. They’ve built an instrument that will be the envy of astronomers everywhere and will be in great demand for years to come.”
MeerKAT’s 64 dishes or antennas provide 2,000 unique antenna pairs, far more than any comparable telescope. This design feature contributes critically to making high-fidelity images of the radio sky, including this best view in existence of the center of the Milky Way. It is also advantageous to observe the center of the galaxy from South Africa, where it passes overhead and is visible for almost 12 hours each day, unlike from northern hemisphere locations.
Radio array telescopes do not measure the very largest, smooth structures in a given region of the sky. That additional information can be obtained using single-dish radio telescopes; for the MeerKAT image shown here, that information is from the Green Bank Telescope (courtesy of Bill Cotton, NRAO).