Two different telescopes simultaneously observed violent flares from the supermassive black hole in the center of the Milky Way. The outbursts from this region, known as Sagittarius A*, reveal material being stretched like bread dough out as it orbits in the intense gravity close to the central black hole. Using ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) and the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX) telescope, both in Chile, to study light from Sagittarius A* at near-infrared wavelengths and the longer submillimeter wavelengths, astronomers have for the first time concurrently caught a flare with these telescopes. “Observations like this, over a range of wavelengths, are really the only way to understand what’s going on close to the black hole,” says Andreas Eckart of the University of Cologne, who led the team.
Sagittarius A* is located at the centre of our own Milky Way Galaxy at a distance from Earth of about 26,000 light-years. It is a supermassive black hole with a mass of about four million times that of the Sun. Most, if not all, galaxies are thought to have a supermassive black hole in their center.
“Sagittarius A* is unique, because it is the nearest of these monster black holes, lying within our own galaxy,” explains team member Frederick K. Baganoff of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, USA. “Only for this one object can our current telescopes detect these relatively faint flares from material orbiting just outside the event horizon.”
The emission from Sagittarius A* is thought to come from gas thrown off by stars, which then orbits and falls into the black hole.
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The VLT pointed their telescope at Sagittarius A* and saw it was active, and getting brighter by the minute. They contacted their colleagues at the APEX telescope, who were able to also catch the flares. Both telescopes are in the southern hemisphere, which provides the best vantage point for studying the Galactic Center.
Over the next six hours, the team detected violently variable infrared emission, with four major flares from Sagittarius A*. The submillimeter-wavelength results also showed flares, but, crucially, this occurred about one and a half hours after the infrared flares.
The researchers explain that this time delay is probably caused by the rapid expansion, at speeds of about 5 million km/h, of the clouds of gas that are emitting the flares. This expansion causes changes in the character of the emission over time, and hence the time delay between the infrared and submillimetre flares.
Although speeds of 5 million km/h may seem fast, this is only 0.5% of the speed of light. To escape from the very strong gravity so close to the black hole, the gas would have to be travelling at half the speed of light – 100 times faster than detected – and so the researchers believe that the gas cannot be streaming out in a jet. Instead, they suspect that a blob of gas orbiting close to the black hole is being stretched out, like dough in a mixing bowl, and this is causing the expansion.
The team hopes that future observations will help them discover more about this mysterious region at the center of our Galaxy.
Read the team’s paper here.