Hot Gas is Being Vented Away from the Center of the Milky Way

Studying gas in the Universe is no easy task. We often look to ‘non-visible’ wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum such as X-rays. The Chandra X-Ray observatory has been observing a vent of hot gas blowing away from the centre of the Milky Way. Located about 26,000 light years away, the jet extends for hundreds of light years and is perpendicular to the disk of the Galaxy. It is now thought the gas has been forced away from the centre of the Milky Way because of a collision with cooler gas lying in its path and creating shockwaves. 

The Chandra X-ray observatory was launched by NASA in 1999. Since then, it has been orbiting above the atmosphere, probing space in high energy X-rays. It provides us with stunning, high resolution data that allows us to study black holes, supernova remnants and other high energy events in unprecedented detail. 

Artist’s illustration of Chandra

Using the power of the Chandra telescope to study the centre of our Galaxy, ridges that were perpendicular to the plane of the Milky Way were seen at a distance of 26,000 light years. The team of researchers believe the ridges are the walls of a tunnel that is shaped like a cylinder. The structure helps to funnel hot gas along, much as a chimney does over a fireplace, and away from the centre of the Galaxy. The vent is about 700 light years long and extends away from the core of the Milky Way. 

The structure was previously spotted using earlier data from Chandra but also from the XMM-Newton project too. The radio emission have been detected by the MeerKAT radio array ( based in South Africa this array is made up of 64 receivers ) too and shows the powerful effects of magnetic fields channeling gas along the chimney. Lead scientist Scott Mackey from the University of Chicago said “We suspected that magnetic fields are acting as the walls of the chimney and that hot gas is travelling up through them, like smoke.” He continued “Now we’ve discovered an exhaust vent near the top of the chimney.”

Exploring the Chandra data, the team think the vent formed from a collision as hot rising gas through the tunnel collided with cooler gas. The bright ridges in the walls are thought to be the result of shock waves generated by the collision. The left portion of the tunnel seems brighter because the gas flowing upwards has struck the chimney at a more direct angle and imparted more energy. 

As for the origins of the hot gas, it is thought this is coming from material falling into the black hole at the centre of the Galaxy. As material accretes around the black hole, a series of events can cause material to be ejected from the accretion disk, forcing the gas along the chimney.  X-ray flares are thought to take place every couple of hundred years near the black hole where blasts of X-ray radiation reflects off a build up of hot plasma. These flares are thought to drive the hot gas upwards and out through the vent. 

The diagonal line of bright objects in this image of the heart of our Milky Way Galaxy are all powerful sources of radio waves. The bright center is the home of the supermassive black hole, Sagittarius A*. The dense, bright circles are the nurseries of new, hot stars and the bubbles are the graveyards of exploded, massive stars. The thread-like shapes are not yet understood, but probably trace powerful magnetic field lines. This giant image was assembled from observations made by the Very Large Array (VLA).

One of the outstanding questions requiring extra research is the ultimate driving force behind the energy release. Is it a one off major event like the death of a star as it is ripped apart by the black hole or a series of smaller events that build up? Further studies are needed to fully understand the events at the centre of the Galaxy and to build a fuller picture of the nature of the vent at the centre of the Galaxy. 

Source : NASA’s Chandra Notices the Galactic Center is Venting