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Scientists Spot Ancient Star Burst in Milky Way's Heart in Stunning New Image

Astronomers gazing into the heart of the Milky Way (opens in new tab) have discovered new clues about our galaxy's dramatic past. 

Using the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope (opens in new tab) (VLT) array in Chile's Atacama Desert, astronomers created a high-resolution image of our galaxy's center. The new observations revealed a burst of new star formation in the Milky Way's early years that was so intense, it led to more than 100,000 supernovas (opens in new tab), or exploding stars. 

"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,"  Rainer Schödel, a researcher with the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia (IAA) in Granada, Spain, who led the observations, said in a statement (opens in new tab)

Video: See the Milky Way's Central Region in Incredible VLT View (opens in new tab)
Related:
Our Milky Way Galaxy's Core Revealed (Photos) (opens in new tab)

"Contrary to what had been accepted up to now, we found that the formation of stars has not been continuous," Francisco Nogueras-Lara, who led two new studies based on these observations of the Milky Way central region at IAA, said in the same statement.

One of the studies, which was published today (Dec. 16) in the journal Nature Astronomy (opens in new tab), found that about 80% of the stars in the core of the Milky Way formed between 8 billion and 13.5 billion years ago. For comparison, scientists believe that the Milky Way galaxy is about 13.6 billion years old (opens in new tab)

"This initial period of star formation was followed by about six billion years during which very few stars were born," ESO officials said in the statement. "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."

Video: Milky Way Galaxy's Central Region - Very Large Telescope Zoom-In (opens in new tab)

"The conditions in the studied region during this burst of activity must have resembled those in 'starburst' galaxies (opens in new tab), which form stars at rates of more than 100 solar masses per year," said Nogueras-Lara, who is now based at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany. 

Researchers captured these images using an instrument on VLT called HAWK-I, a wide-field imager that observes the sky in near-infrared wavelengths, which allows it to "see" through dense clouds of interstellar dust and gas. The HAWK-I instrument allowed researchers to capture this stunning new view of the Milky Way, which was first published in October in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics (opens in new tab)

Email Hanneke Weitering at hweitering@space.com or follow her @hannekescience. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Hanneke Weitering
Hanneke Weitering

Hanneke Weitering is an editor at Space.com with 10 years of experience in science journalism. She has previously written for Scholastic Classroom Magazines, MedPage Today and The Joint Institute for Computational Sciences at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. After studying physics at the University of Tennessee in her hometown of Knoxville, she earned her graduate degree in Science, Health and Environmental Reporting (SHERP) from New York University. Hanneke joined the Space.com team in 2016 as a staff writer and producer, covering topics including spaceflight and astronomy. She currently lives in Seattle, home of the Space Needle, with her cat and two snakes. In her spare time, Hanneke enjoys exploring the Rocky Mountains, basking in nature and looking for dark skies to gaze at the cosmos.