Astronomers said on Thursday they detected a bubble of hot gas spinning clockwise around the black hole at the center of our galaxy at “mind-boggling” speeds. The detection of the bubble, which only survived a few hours, is expected to provide insight into how these invisible and insatiable galactic monsters work.
theIt lurks in the middle of the Milky Way about 27,000 light-years from Earth, and its immense pull gives our home galaxy its signature swirl.
The first image of Sagittarius A* was revealed in May by the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration, which links radio antennas around the world with the goal of detecting light as it disappears into the jaws of black holes.
One such dish, the ALMA radio telescope in Chile’s Andes mountains, detected 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 increase” 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 spinning 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 an orbit similar to Mercury’s trip around the sun, said study lead author Wielgus.
But while Mercury takes 88 days to make that trip, the bubble made it in just 70 minutes. That means he traveled at around 30 percent of the speed of light.
“So it’s an absolutely, ridiculously fast spinning bubble,” Wielgus said, calling it “mind-boggling.”
The scientists were able to track the bubble through their data for about an hour and a half; it is unlikely to have survived more than a couple of orbits before being destroyed.
Wielgus said the observation supported a theory known as MAD. “MAD like a madman, but also CRAZY like stopped magnetic discs,” he said.
The phenomenon is thought to occur when there is such a strong magnetic field at the mouth of a black hole that it prevents material from being sucked in.
But the matter continues to accumulate, becoming a “flux eruption,” Wielgus said, which breaks up 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 remain a mystery.
Magnetic fields could also help indicate how fast black holes are spinning, which could be particularly interesting for Sagittarius A*.
While Sagittarius A* has 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 so close to us.”
But it’s probably a good thing that our galaxy has a “hungry 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 observed directly because nothing, not even light, can escape the crushing internal force of their titanic gravity.
But their presence can be detected indirectly by observing the effects of that gravity on the paths of nearby stars and by radiation emitted across the electromagnetic spectrum by material heated to extreme temperatures as it is absorbed by a rapidly spinning “accretion disk.” and then through the hole itself.
A main goal of the new James Webb Space Telescope is to help astronomers chart the formation and growth of such black holes after the Big Bang.
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