Astronomers said Thursday they have spotted a hot bubble of gas spinning clockwise around the black hole at the center of our galaxy at “amazing” speeds. The discovery of the bubble, which only survived for a few hours, is hoped to provide insight into how these invisible, insatiable, galactic monsters work.
Thelurks in the center of the Milky Way some 27,000 light-years from Earth, and its enormous features give our home galaxy its characteristic swirl.
The first ever image of Sagittarius A* was revealed in May by the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration, which links radio dishes around the world with the aim of detecting light as it disappears into black holes.
One of those dishes, the ALMA radio telescope in the Chilean Andes, picked up something “really puzzling” in the Sagittarius A* data, said Maciek Wielgus, an astrophysicist at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy.
Just minutes before ALMA’s radio data collection began, the Chandra space telescope observed a “huge spike” in X-rays, Wielgus told AFP.
This burst of energy, thought to be similar to solar flares on the Sun, sent a bubble of hot gas swirling around the black hole, according to a new study published in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.
The gas bubble, also known as a hot spot, had a path similar to Mercury’s trip around the sun, said the study’s lead author Wielgus.
But while it takes Mercury 88 days to make that trip, the bubble made it in just 70 minutes. That means it traveled at around 30 percent of the speed of light.
“So it’s an absolutely, ridiculously fast-spinning bubble,” Wielgus said, calling it “fantastic.”
The researchers were able to track the bubble through their data for around an hour and a half – it was unlikely to have survived more than a couple of orbits before it was destroyed.
Wielgus said the observation supported a theory known as MAD. “Crazy as crazy, but also CRAZY as magnetically arrested discs,” he said.
The phenomenon is believed to occur when there is such a strong magnetic field at the mouth of a black hole that it stops material from being sucked in.
But the matter continues to pile up and builds up to a “flux burst,” Wielgus said, which snaps the magnetic fields and causes a burst of energy.
By learning how these magnetic fields work, scientists hope to build a model of the forces that control black holes, which are still shrouded in mystery.
Magnetic fields can also help indicate how fast black holes are spinning – something that could be of particular interest to Sagittarius A*.
While Sagittarius A* is four million times the mass of our sun, it only shines with the power of about 100 suns, “which is extremely unimpressive for a supermassive black hole,” Wielgus said.
“It’s the faintest supermassive black hole we’ve seen in the universe – we’ve only seen it because it’s very close to us.”
But it’s probably a good thing that our galaxy has a “starving black hole” at its center, Wielgus said.
“Living next to a quasar,” which can shine with the power of billions of suns, “would be a terrible thing,” he added.
By definition, black holes cannot be directly observed because nothing, not even light, can escape the crushing internal force of their titanic gravity.
But their presence can be indirectly detected by observing the effect of gravity on the orbits of nearby stars and by the radiation emitted across the electromagnetic spectrum by material heated to extreme temperatures as it is sucked into a rapidly rotating “accretion disk” and then into the hole itself.
A major goal of the new James Webb Space Telescope is to help astronomers chart the formation and growth of such black holes in the wake of the Big Bang.
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