Astronomers said Thursday they have spotted a hot bubble of gas spinning clockwise around the black hole at the center of our galaxy at a “mind-blowing” speed. It is hoped that the discovery of the bubble, which only survived for a few hours, will provide insight into how these insatiable, invisible galactic monsters operate.
TheLurking in the middle of the Milky Way about 27,000 light-years from Earth, its immense clouds give our home galaxy a distinct whirl.
The first-ever image of Sagittarius A* was revealed in May by the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration, which connects radio dishes around the world with the goal of detecting light as it disappears into black holes.
One such dish, the ALMA Radio Telescope in the Andes in Chile, has captured something “really puzzling” in the A* arc data, said Masek Wilgus, an astrophysicist at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy.
Just minutes before it began collecting radio data from ALMA, the Chandra Space Telescope observed a “tremendous rise” in X-rays, Wilgus told AFP.
A new study published in the Journal of Astronomy and Astrophysics shows that this burst of energy, which is thought to resemble solar flares on the Sun, sent a hot bubble of gas orbiting the black hole.
The gas bubble, also known as a hot spot, has an orbit similar to Mercury’s flight around the sun, said lead author of the study, Wilgus.
But while it takes Mercury 88 days to make this journey, Bubble has done it in just 70 minutes. This means that it traveled at about 30% of the speed of light.
“So it’s a ridiculously fast spinning bubble,” Wilgus said, describing it as “mind-blowing.”
Scientists were able to track the bubble through their data for about an hour and a half – it was unlikely that it had survived more than two orbits before it was destroyed.
Wielgus said the observation supports a theory known as MAD. “Mad like crazy, but also mad like disks that have been magnetically caught,” he said.
This phenomenon is believed to occur when there is a strong magnetic field in the black hole’s mouth that prevents material from being sucked in.
But Vielgos said it keeps accumulating, creating a “spurt rush,” which cuts off magnetic fields and causes an explosion of energy.
By learning how these magnetic fields work, scientists hope to build a model for the forces that control black holes, which are still shrouded in mystery.
Magnetic fields can also help determine how fast black holes rotate – something that could be particularly interesting for Sagittarius A*.
While Sagittarius A* has a mass of four million times the mass of our sun, it only shines with a power of about 100 suns, “which isn’t very impressive for a supermassive black hole,” Wilgus said.
“It’s the weakest supermassive black hole we’ve seen in the universe – we’ve only seen it because it’s so close to us.”
It may be a good thing, Wilgus said, that our galaxy has a “hungry black hole” at its center.
He added that “living next to a quasar” that can shine as bright as billions of suns “would be a terrible thing.”
By definition, black holes cannot be directly observed because nothing, not even light, can escape the overwhelming internal force of their gigantic gravity.
But its presence can be revealed indirectly by observing the effects of that gravity on the paths of nearby stars and the radiation emitted across the electromagnetic spectrum by material heated to extreme temperatures as it is sucked into a rapidly spinning “accumulation disk” and then into the crater itself.
One of the main goals of the new James Webb Space Telescope is to help astronomers map the shape and growth of such black holes in the aftermath of the Big Bang.
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