Until now astronomers had only seen bits and pieces of the ribbon’s 600-light-year-wide superstructure, which resembles the symbol for infinity: ∞.
“We have a new and exciting mystery on our hands, right at the center of our own galaxy,” said astronomer Sergio Molinari of the Institute of Space Physics in a press release. Molinari and others describe the strange ribbon in an upcoming Astrophysical Journal Letters study available on arXiv.org.
Astronomers previously studied gas-piercing infrared images of the Milky Way’s cloudy barred core, but they didn’t have photos with resolution high enough to discern the ribbon’s entire structure. Molinari and others found the ring by aiming the European Space Agency’s infrared Herschel Space Observatory toward galactic center.
The telescope’s images suggest the ring is a chilly 15 degrees Kelvin — warmer regions are blue while cooler regions are red — and has two segments that poke out of the galaxy’s pancake-like plain. Ground-based radio telescope data also hints that the ring is spinning around the core as one cohesive unit.
Although astronomers aren’t certain why the two lobes of the ring twist upwards, they suspect the gravitational tug of nearby galaxies — perhaps Andromeda some 2.5 million light-years away — is responsible.