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Astronomers make a remarkable discovery in the center of the Milky Way

The young stars (red dots) slice across the center of the galaxy in this artist's rendering. The yellow star indicates our sun. (ESO/Microsoft WorldWide Telescope)
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Scientists have found a brand new feature at the center of our own galaxy — a disk of young stars hidden in with the old-timers.

Until now, astronomers thought that the bulge at the center of the Milky Way contained only ancient stars. In fact, it seemed that all of that region's star-making materials had been used up ages ago. But in a paper published Wednesday in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, researchers announce that the bulge apparently has kept making stars.

[This is what it looks like when a black hole tears a star apart]

The researchers found this by studying variable stars called Cepheids. They're useful to study, because they brighten and dim periodically, and one can infer their distance based on the length of this cycle. That allows them to be used as distance markers for other objects. A survey using the European Southern Observatory's VISTA telescope — which can cut through the thick dust of the galaxy using infrared — collected images meant to capture these and other variable stars, and the authors of the new study found their bright young things by analyzing several years of the data.

[With 46 billion pixels, this is the largest ever image of space]

Of the 655 Cepheids they found, they were surprised to note that 35 of them were so-called classical Cepheids — a subtype of young stars.

Astronomers using the VISTA telescope at ESO’s Paranal Observatory have discovered a previously unknown disc of young stars in the Milk Way. (Video: YouTube/European Southern Observatory (ESO))

They were even more surprised when they mapped the young stars and realized that they were forming a disk feature across the center bulge of the Milky Way.

"All of the 35 classical Cepheids discovered are less than 100 million years old. The youngest Cepheid may even be only around 25 million years old, although we cannot exclude the possible presence of even younger and brighter Cepheids," Dante Minniti of the Universidad Andres Bello, the study's second author, said in a statement.

The researchers will continue to study these mysterious young stars to determine their origin.

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