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Bar at Milky Way's heart revealed

The Milky Way is not a perfect spiral galaxy but instead sports a long bar through its centre, according to new infrared observations from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope.

Galaxies come in a wide variety of shapes usually thought to be produced by gravitational interactions with nearby objects. Some spiral galaxies look like pinwheels, with their arms curving out from a central bulge, while others have a straight bar at their centres.

Radio telescopes detected gas that hinted at a bar at the heart of the Milky Way in the late 1980s. A decade later, observations with the near infrared survey 2MASS bolstered the case for a bar, but dust in the centre of the galaxy obscured the observations.

Now, astronomers have used Spitzer to peer through that dust at slightly longer wavelengths, observing 30 million stars in the galactic plane in the region around the centre of the galaxy.

They found that the central bar was much longer than previous observations had suggested - reaching about half the distance between the galaxy's centre and our Sun. The bar is estimated to stretch a total of about 27,000 light years from end to end.

"It is a major component of our galaxy and has basically remained hidden until now," says team member Ed Churchwell, an astronomer at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, US. "The fact that it's large means it's going to have a major effect on the dynamics of the inner part of our galaxy."

Bar food

Stars in the spiral arms circle the galaxy in roughly circular orbits. But the old, red stars in the bar appear to be on more elliptical paths that take them more directly towards and away from the galaxy's core, where a colossal black hole is thought to lurk.

"This bar probably does carry matter into the centre of the galaxy and feeds the black hole," Churchwell told New Scientist.

But it is still not clear what the discovery reveals about the Milky Way's past. "I don't think anybody really fully understands how bars are formed," says Churchwell. "What we do know is that it appears there are so many barred galaxies they must be rather stable. Astronomers have to come up with some kind of model that can explain the stability of these structures."

The team will publish its results in an upcoming issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters and has requested more time on Spitzer to study the innermost part of the Milky Way.

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The massive new survey of stars reveals a definitive bar feature at the centre of the Milky Way, some 27,000 light years in length (Artist's impression: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R Hurt, SSC/Caltech)

The massive new survey of stars reveals a definitive bar feature at the centre of the Milky Way, some 27,000 light years in length (Artist's impression: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R Hurt, SSC/Caltech)

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