Do you ever think about how small we are in comparison to the rest of the galaxy? How about the universe? This week, NASA released a time lapse video simulating a visual trip to the center of the galaxy. Using wide-field images of the Milky Way taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA simulates a journey of 27,000 light years — from the tiny speck that is planet Earth, all the way into the very center of the galaxy we call home.
One of the must shocking facts about this journey is that there are more than half a million stars at the core of the Milky Way galaxy. This nuclear star cluster is the most dense and massive group of stars in the entire galaxy. It’s hard to grasp just how dense the cluster is, but think of it in more local terms: to match the stellar density of the Milky Way’s nuclear star cluster, you’d have to stuff one million suns into the volume of space in the 4.3 light years between planet Earth and our closest neighbor star, Alpha Centauri.
A million suns! Once the time-lapse visualization does reach the center of the Milky Way, we get a brief glimpse of the many stars surrounding the supermassive black hole known as Sagittarius A*. Of course, we can’t capture photos of Sagittarius A* since it is impossible to observe a black hole directly, but astronomers and scientists are often able to identify black holes in space by studying the orbital patterns and trajectories of stars and planets in a particular region of space.
NASA’s video gives us just a glimpse of what would be a very, very long (and arduous, and to this day still physically impossible) trip to the center of our galaxy. Of course, this virtual version only takes 30 seconds and it isn’t quite the same as real life space travel, but for many of us, this beautiful taste of deep space exploration may be as close as we’re ever going to get.