The Goddard-IRAM Superconducting 2-Millimeter Observer (GISMO) instrument paired up with a radio telescope in Spain to capture the festive image, which shows a red-and-yellow cane-like formation near the middle of the composite picture.
"But this is no cosmic confection. It spans 190 light-years and is one of a set of long, thin strands of ionized gas called filaments that emit radio waves," NASA said.
The instrument sees space much differently than the human eye does. "GISMO observes microwaves with a wavelength of 2 millimeters, allowing us to explore the galaxy in the transition zone between infrared light and longer radio wavelengths," said GISMO team leader Johannes Staguhn.
There's a lot going on in the image, which is made up of data from a variety of sources. NASA released an annotated version that points out some highlights, including a collection of giant molecular clouds. Sagittarius B1 and B2 are examples of these. "These vast, cool clouds contain enough dense gas and dust to form tens of millions of stars like the Sun," NASA said.
There's plenty here for astronomers to get excited about, though holiday revelers will enjoy focusing on the "candy cane." Perhaps we should consider renaming our galaxy to "the Minty Way."