Two groups of astronomers have used data from ESO telescopes to make the best three-dimensional map yet of the central parts of the Milky Way. They have found that the inner regions take on a peanut-like, or X-shaped, appearance from some angles. This odd shape was mapped by using public data from ESO’s VISTA survey telescope along with measurements of the motions of hundreds of very faint stars in the central bulge.
One of the most important and massive parts of the galaxy is the galactic bulge. This huge central cloud of about 10 000 million stars spans thousands of light-years, but its structure and origin were not well understood.
Unfortunately, from our vantage point from within the galactic disc, the view of this central region—at about 27 000 light-years’ distance—is heavily obscured by dense clouds of gas and dust. Astronomers can only obtain a good view of the bulge by observing longer wavelength light, such as infrared radiation, which can penetrate the dust clouds.
“We find that the inner region of our Galaxy has the shape of a peanut in its shell from the side, and of a highly elongated bar from above”, adds Ortwin Gerhard, the coauthor of the first paper and leader of the Dynamics Group at MPE. “It is the first time that we can see this clearly in our own Milky Way, and simulations in our group and by others show that this shape is characteristic of a barred galaxy that started out as a pure disc of stars.” Edited from The peanut at the heart of our galaxy.