At the heart of the Milky Way Galaxy lurks a Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH) named Sagittarius A* (Sag. A-star). Sag. A* is an object of intense study, even though you can’t actually see it. But new images from the Atacama Large Millimetre/sub-millimetre Array (ALMA) reveal swirling high-speed clouds of gas and dust orbiting the black hole, the next best thing to seeing the hole itself.
Between 300 million and 900 million years ago, our Milky Way galaxy nearly collided with the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy. Data from the ESA’s Gaia mission shows the ongoing effect of this event, with stars moving like ripples on the surface of a pond. The galactic collision is part of an ongoing cannibalization of the dwarf galaxy by the much-larger Milky Way.
Since the birth of modern astronomy, scientists have sought to determine the full extent of the Milky Way galaxy and learn more about its structure, formation and evolution. At present, astronomers estimate that it is 100,000 to 180,000 light-years in diameter and consists of 100 to 400 billion stars – though some estimates say there could be as many as 1 trillion.
And yet, even after decades of research and observations, there is still much about our galaxy astronomers do not know. For example, they are still trying to determine how massive the Milky Way is, and estimates vary widely. In a new study, a team of international scientists presents a new method for weighing the galaxy based the dynamics of the Milky Way’s satellites galaxies.
In December of 2013, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched the Gaia mission, a space observatory designed to measure the positions of movements of celestial bodies. Over the course of its five-year mission, this observatory has been studying a total of 1 billion objects – including distant stars, planets, comets, asteroids, quasars, etc. – for the sake of creating the largest and most precise 3D space catalog ever made.
During the 1970s, astronomer became aware of a massive radio source at the center of our galaxy that they later realized was a Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH) – which has since been named Sagittarius A*. And in a recent survey conducted by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, astronomers discovered evidence for hundreds or even thousands of black holes located in the same vicinity of the Milky Way.
But, as it turns out, the center of our galaxy has more mysteries that are just waiting to be discovered. For instance, a team of astronomers recently detected a number of “mystery objects” that appeared to be moving around the SMBH at Galactic Center. Using 12 years of data taken from the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, the astronomers found objects that looked like dust clouds but behaved like stars.
The research was conducted through a collaboration between Randy Campbell at the W.M. Keck Observatory, members of the Galactic Center Group at UCLA (Anna Ciurlo, Mark Morris, and Andrea Ghez) and Rainer Schoedel of the Instituto de Astrofisica de Andalucia (CSIC) in Granada, Spain. The results of this study were presented at the 232nd American Astronomical Society Meeting during a press conference titled “The Milky Way & Active Galactic Nuclei”.
As Ciurlo explained in a recent W.M. Keck press release:
“These compact dusty stellar objects move extremely fast and close to our Galaxy’s supermassive black hole. It is fascinating to watch them move from year to year. How did they get there? And what will they become? They must have an interesting story to tell.”
The researchers made their discovery using 12 years of spectroscopic measurements obtained by the Keck Observatory’s OH-Suppressing Infrared Imaging Spectrograph (OSIRIS). These objects – which were designed as G3, G4, and G5 – were found while examining the gas dynamics of the center of our galaxy, and were distinguished from background emissions because of their movements.
“We started this project thinking that if we looked carefully at the complicated structure of gas and dust near the supermassive black hole, we might detect some subtle changes to the shape and velocity,” explained Randy Campbell. “It was quite surprising to detect several objects that have very distinct movement and characteristics that place them in the G-object class, or dusty stellar objects.”
Astronomers first discovered G-objects in proximity to Sagittarius A* more than a decade ago – G1 was discovered in 2004 and G2 in 2012. Initially, both were thought to be gas clouds until they made their closest approach to the supermassive black hole and survived. Ordinarily, the SMBHs gravitational pull would shred gas clouds apart, but this did not happen with G1 and G2.
Because these newly discovered infrared sources (G3, G4, and G5) shared the physical characteristics of G1 and G2, the team concluded that they could potentially be G-objects. What makes G-objects unusual is their “puffiness”, where they appear to be cloaked in a layer of dust and gas that makes them difficult to detect. Unlike other stars, astronomers only see a glowing envelope of dust when looking at G-objects.
To see these objects clearly through their obscuring envelope of dust and gas, Campbell developed a tool called the OSIRIS-Volume Display (OsrsVol). As Campbell described it:
“OsrsVol allowed us to isolate these G-objects from the background emission and analyze the spectral data in three dimensions: two spatial dimensions, and the wavelength dimension that provides velocity information. Once we were able to distinguish the objects in a 3-D data cube, we could then track their motion over time relative to the black hole.”
UCLA Astronomy Professor Mark Morris, a co-principal investigator and fellow member of UCLA’s Galactic Center Orbits Initiative (GCOI), was also involved in the study. As he indicated:
“If they were gas clouds, G1 and G2 would not have been able to stay intact. Our view of the G-objects is that they are bloated stars – stars that have become so large that the tidal forces exerted by the central black hole can pull matter off of their stellar atmospheres when the stars get close enough, but have a stellar core with enough mass to remain intact. The question is then, why are they so large?
After examining the objects, the team noticed that there was a great deal of energy was emanating from them, more than what would be expected from typical stars. As a result, they theorized that these G-objects are the result of stellar mergers, which occur when two stars that orbit each other (aka. binaries) crash into each other. This would have been caused by the long-term gravitational influence of the SMBH.
The resulting single object would be distended (i.e. swell up) over the course of millions of years before it finally settled down and appeared like a normal-sized star. The combined objects that resulted from these violent mergers could explain where the excess energy came from and why they behave like stars do. As Andrea Ghez, the founder and director of GCOI, explained:
“This is what I find most exciting. If these objects are indeed binary star systems that have been driven to merge through their interaction with the central supermassive black hole, this may provide us with insight into a process which may be responsible for the recently discovered stellar mass black hole mergers that have been detected through gravitational waves.”
Looking ahead, the team plans to continue following the size and shape of the G-objects’ orbits in the hopes of determining how they formed. They will be paying especially close attention when these stellar objects make their closest approach to Sagittarius A*, since this will allow them to further observe their behavior and see if they remain intact (as G1 and G2 did).
This will take a few decades, with G3 making its closest pass in 20 years and G4 and G5 taking decades longer. In the meantime, the team hopes to learn more about these “puffy” star-like objects by following their dynamical evolution using Keck’s OSIRIS instrument. As Ciurlo stated:
“Understanding G-objects can teach us a lot about the Galactic Center’s fascinating and still mysterious environment. There are so many things going on that every localized process can help explain how this extreme, exotic environment works.”
And be sure to check out this video of the presentation, which takes place from 18:30 until 30:20:
Further Reading: Keck Observatory
Since the 1970s, astronomers have understood that a Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH) resides at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. Located about 26,000 light-years from Earth between the Sagittarius and Scorpius constellations, this black hole has come to be known as Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*). Measuring 44 million km across, this object is roughly 4 million times as massive as our Sun and exerts a tremendous gravitational pull.
Since that time, astronomers have discovered that most massive galaxies have SMBHs at their core, which is what separates those that have an Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN) from those that don’t. But thanks to a recent survey conducted using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, astronomers have discovered evidence for hundreds or even thousands of black holes located near the center of the Milky Way Galaxy.
The study which described their findings was recently published in the journal Nature under the title “A density cusp of quiescent X-ray binaries in the central parsec of the Galaxy“. The study was led by Chuck Hailey, the Pupin Professor of Physics and the Co-Director of the Columbia Astrophysics Laboratory (CAL) at Columbia University, and including members from the Instituto de Astrofísica at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
Using Chandra data, the team searched for X-ray binaries containing black holes that were in the vicinity of Sgr A*. To recap, black holes are not detectable in visible light. However, black holes (or neutron stars) that are locked in close orbits with a star will pull material from their companions, which will then be accreted onto the black holes’ disks and heated up to millions of degrees.
This will result in the release of X-rays which can then be detected, hence why these systems are called “X-ray binaries”. Using Chandra data, the team sought out X-ray of sources that were located within roughly 12 light years of Sgr A*. They then selected sources with X-ray spectra similar to those of known X-ray binaries, which emit relatively large amounts of low-energy X-rays.
Using this method, they detected fourteen X-ray binaries within about three light years of Sgr A*, all of which contained stellar-mass black holes (between 5 and 30 times the mass of our Sun). Two of these sources had been identified by previous studies and were eliminated from the analysis, while the remaining twelve (circled in red in the image above) were newly-discovered.
Other sources which relatively large amounts of high energy X-rays (labeled in yellow) were believed to be binaries containing white dwarfs. Hailey and his colleagues concluded that the majority of the dozen X-ray binaries were likely to contain black holes, based on their variability and the fact that their X-ray emissions over the course of several years was different from what is expected from binaries containing neutron stars.
Given that only the brightest X-ray binaries containing black holes are likely to be detectable around Sgr A* (given its distance from Earth), Hailey and his colleagues concluded that this detection implies the existence of a much larger population. By their estimates, there could be at least 300 and as many as one thousand stellar-mass black holes present around Sgr A*.
These findings confirmed what theoretical studies on the dynamics of stars in galaxies have indicated in the past. According to these studies, a large population of stellar mass black holes (as many as 20,000) could drift inward over the course of millions of years and collect around an SMBH. However, the recent analysis conducted by Hailey and his colleagues was the first observational evidence of black holes congregating near Sgr A*.
Naturally, the authors acknowledge that there are other explanations for the X-ray emissions they detected. This includes the possibility that half of the dozen sources they observed are millisecond pulsars – very rapidly rotating neutron stars with strong magnetic fields. However, based on their observations, Hailey and his team strongly favor the black hole explanation.
In addition, a follow-up study conducted by Aleksey Generozov (et al.) of Columbia University – titled “An Overabundance of Black Hole X-Ray Binaries in the Galactic Center from Tidal Captures” – indicated that there could be as many as 10,000 to 40,000 black holes binaries at the center of our galaxy. According to this study, these binaries would be the result of companions being captured by black holes.
In addition to revealing much about the dynamics of stars in our galaxy, this study has implications for the emerging field of gravitational wave (GW) research. Essentially, by knowing how many black holes reside at the center of galaxies (which will periodically merge with one another), astronomers will be able to better predict how many gravitational wave events are associated with them.
From this, astronomers could create predictive models about when and how GW events are likely to happen, and well as discerning what role they may play in galactic evolution. And with next-generation instruments – like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the ESA’s Advanced Telescope for High Energy Astrophysics (ATHENA) – astronomers will be able to determine exactly how many black holes reside near the center of our galaxy.
Further Reading: NASA
Compared to some other galaxies in our Universe, the Milky Way is a rather subtle character. In fact, there are galaxies that are a thousands times as luminous as the Milky Way, owing to the presence of warm gas in the galaxy’s Central Molecular Zone (CMZ). This gas is heated by massive bursts of star formation that surround the Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH) at the nucleus of the galaxy.
The core of the Milky Way also has a SMBH (Sagittarius A*) and all the gas it needs to form new stars. But for some reason, star formation in our galaxy’s CMZ is less than the average. To address this ongoing mystery, an international team of astronomers conducted a large and comprehensive study of the CMZ to search for answers as to why this might be.
The study, titled “Star formation in a high-pressure environment: an SMA view of the Galactic Centre dust ridge” recently appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The study was led by Daniel Walker of the Joint ALMA Observatory and the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, and included members from multiple observatories, universities and research institutes.
For the sake of their study, the team relied on the Submillimeter Array (SMA) radio interferometer, which is located atop Maunakea in Hawaii. What they found was a sample of thirteen high-mass cores in the CMZ’s “dust ridge” that could be young stars in the initial phase of development. These cores ranged in mass from 50 to 2150 Solar Masses and have radii of 0.1 – 0.25 parsecs (0.326 – 0.815 light-years).
They also noted the presence of two objects that appeared to be previously unknown young, high-mass protostars. As they state in their study, all of this indicated that stars in CMZ had about the same rate of formation as those in the galactic disc, despite their being vast pressure differences:
“All appear to be young (pre-UCHII), meaning that they are prime candidates for representing the initial conditions of high-mass stars and sub-clusters. We compare all of the detected cores with high-mass cores and clouds in the Galactic disc and find that they are broadly similar in terms of their masses and sizes, despite being subjected to external pressures that are several orders of magnitude greater.”
To determine that the external pressure in the CMZ was greater, the team observed spectral lines of the molecules formaldehyde and methyl cyanide to measure the temperature of the gas and its kinetics. These indicated that the gas environment was highly turbulent, which led them to the conclusion that the turbulent environment of the CMZ is responsible for inhibiting star formation there.
As they state in their study, these results were consistent with their previous hypothesis:
“The fact that >80 percent of these cores do not show any signs of star-forming activity in such a high-pressure environment leads us to conclude that this is further evidence for an increased critical density threshold for star formation in the CMZ due to turbulence.”
So in the end, the rate of star formation in a CMZ is not only dependent on their being a lot of gas and dust, but on the nature of the gas environment itself. These results could inform future studies of not only the Milky Way, but of other galaxies as well – particularly when it comes to the relationship that exists between Supermassive Black Holes (SMBHs), star formation, and the evolution of galaxies.
For decades, astronomers have studied the central regions of galaxies in the hopes of determining how this relationship works. And in recent years, astronomers have come up with conflicting results, some of which indicate that star formation is arrested by the presence of SMBHs while others show no correlation.
In addition, further examinations of SMBHs and Active Galactic Nuclei (AGNs) have shown that there may be no correlation between the mass of a galaxy and the mass of its central black hole – another theory that astronomers previously subscribed to.
As such, understanding how and why star formation appears to be different in galaxies like the Milky Way could help us to unravel these other mysteries. From that, a better understanding of how stars and galaxies evolved over the course of cosmic history is sure to emerge.
According to modern cosmological models, the Universe began in a cataclysm event known as the Big Bang. This took place roughly 13.8 billion years ago, and was followed by a period of expansion and cooling. During that time, the first hydrogen atoms formed as protons and electrons combined and the fundamental forces of physics were born. Then, about 100 million years after the Big Bang, that the first stars and galaxies began to form.
The formation of the first stars was also what allowed for the creation of heavier elements, and therefore the formation of planets and all life as we know it. However, until now, how and when this process took place has been largely theoretical since astronomers did not know where the oldest stars in our galaxy were to be found. But thanks to a new study by a team of Spanish astronomers, we may have just found the oldest star in the Milky Way!
The study, titled “J0815+4729: A chemically primitive dwarf star in the Galactic Halo observed with Gran Telescopio Canarias“, recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. Led by David S. Aguado of the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias (IAC), the team included members from the University of La Laguna and the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC).
This star is located roughly 7,500 light years from the Sun, and was found in the halo of the Milky Way along the line of sight to the Lynx constellation. Known as J0815+4729, this star is still in its main sequence and has a low mass, (around 0.7 Solar Masses), though the research team estimates that it has a surface temperature that is about 400 degrees hotter – 6,215 K (5942 °C; 10,727 °F) compared to 5778 K (5505 °C; 9940 °F).
For the sake of their study, the team was looking for a star that showed signs of being metal-poor, which would indicate that it has been in its main sequence for a very long time. The team first selected J0815+4729 from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey-III Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (SDSS-III/BOSS) and then conducted follow-up spectroscopic investigations to determine its composition (and hence its age).
This was done using the Intermediate dispersion Spectrograph and Imaging System (ISIS) at the William Herschel Telescope (WHT) and the Optical System for Imaging and low-intermediate-Resolution Integrated Spectroscopy (OSIRIS) at Gran Telescopio de Canarias (GTC), both of which are located at the Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos on the island of La Palma.
Consistent with what modern theory predicts, the star was found in the Galactic halo – the extended component of our galaxy that reaches beyond the galactic disk (the visible portion). It is in this region that the oldest and most metal-poor stars are believed to be found in galaxies, hence why the team was confident that a star dating back to the early Universe would be found here.
As Jonay González Hernández – a professor from the University of La Laguna, a member of the IAC and a co-author on the paper – explained in an IAC press release:
“Theory predicts that these stars could use material from the first supernovae, whose progenitors were the first massive stars in the galaxy, around 300 million years after the Big Bang. In spite of its age, and its distance away from us, we can still observe it.”
Spectra obtained by both the ISIS and OSIRIS instruments confirmed that the star was poor in metals, indicating that J0815+4729 has only one-millionth of the calcium and iron that the Sun contains. In addition, the team also noticed that the star has a higher carbon content than our Sun, accounting for almost 15% percent of its solar abundance (i.e. the relative abundance of its elements).
In short, J0815+4729 may be the most iron-poor and carbon-rich star currently known to astronomers. Moreover, finding it was rather difficult since the star is both weak in luminosity and was buried within a massive amount of SDSS/BOSS archival data. As Carlos Allende Prieto, another IAC researcher and a co-author on the paper, indicated:
“This star was tucked away in the database of the BOSS project, among a million stellar spectra which we have analysed, requiring a considerable observational and computational effort. It requires high-resolution spectroscopy on large telescopes to detect the chemical elements in the star, which can help us to understand the first supernovae and their progenitors.”
In the near future, the team predicts that next-generation spectrographs could allow for further research that would reveal more about the star’s chemical abundances. Such instruments include the HORS high-resolution spectrograph, which is presently in a trial phase on the Gran Telescopio Canarias (GTC).
“Detecting lithium gives us crucial information related to Big Bang nucleosynthesis,” said Rafael Rebolo, the director of the IAC and a coauthor of the paper. “We are working on a spectrograph of high-resolution and wide spectral range in order to measure the detailed chemical composition of stars with unique properties such as J0815+4719.”
A Japanese telescope has produced our most detailed radio wave image yet of the Milky Way galaxy. Over a 3-year time period, the Nobeyama 45 meter telescope observed the Milky Way for 1100 hours to produce the map. The image is part of a project called FUGIN (FOREST Unbiased Galactic plane Imaging survey with the Nobeyama 45-m telescope.) The multi-institutional research group behind FUGIN explained the project in the Publications of the Astronomical Society of Japan and at arXiv.
The Nobeyama 45 meter telescope is located at the Nobeyama Radio Observatory, near Minamimaki, Japan. The telescope has been in operation there since 1982, and has made many contributions to millimeter-wave radio astronomy in its life. This map was made using the new FOREST receiver installed on the telescope.
When we look up at the Milky Way, an abundance of stars and gas and dust is visible. But there are also dark spots, which look like voids. But they’re not voids; they’re cold clouds of molecular gas that don’t emit visible light. To see what’s happening in these dark clouds requires radio telescopes like the Nobeyama.
The Nobeyama was the largest millimeter-wave radio telescope in the world when it began operation, and it has always had great resolution. But the new FOREST receiver has improved the telescope’s spatial resolution ten-fold. The increased power of the new receiver allowed astronomers to create this new map.
The new map covers an area of the night sky as wide as 520 full Moons. The detail of this new map will allow astronomers to study both large-scale and small-scale structures in new detail. FUGIN will provide new data on large structures like the spiral arms—and even the entire Milky Way itself—down to smaller structures like individual molecular cloud cores.
FUGIN is one of the legacy projects for the Nobeyama. These projects are designed to collect fundamental data for next-generation studies. To collect this data, FUGIN observed an area covering 130 square degrees, which is over 80% of the area between galactic latitudes -1 and +1 degrees and galactic longitudes from 10 to 50 degrees and from 198 to 236 degrees. Basically, the map tried to cover the 1st and 3rd quadrants of the galaxy, to capture the spiral arms, bar structure, and the molecular gas ring.
The aim of FUGIN is to investigate physical properties of diffuse and dense molecular gas in the galaxy. It does this by simultaneously gathering data on three carbon dioxide isotopes: 2CO, 13CO, and 18CO. Researchers were able to study the distribution and the motion of the gas, and also the physical characteristics like temperature and density. And the studying has already paid off.
FUGIN has already revealed things previously hidden. They include entangled filaments that weren’t obvious in previous surveys, as well as both wide-field and detailed structures of molecular clouds. Large scale kinematics of molecular gas such as spiral arms were also observed.
But the main purpose is to provide a rich data-set for future work by other telescopes. These include other radio telescopes like ALMA, but also telescopes operating in the infrared and other wavelengths. This will begin once the FUGIN data is released in June, 2018.
Millimeter wave radio astronomy is powerful because it can “see” things in space that other telescopes can’t. It’s especially useful for studying the large, cold gas clouds where stars form. These clouds are as cold as -262C (-440F.) At temperatures that low, optical scopes can’t see them, unless a bright star is shining behind them.
Even at these extremely low temperatures, there are chemical reactions occurring. This produces molecules like carbon monoxide, which was a focus of the FUGIN project, but also others like formaldehyde, ethyl alcohol, and methyl alcohol. These molecules emit radio waves in the millimeter range, which radio telescopes like the Nobeyama can detect.
The top-level purpose of the FUGIN project, according to the team behind the project, is to “provide crucial information about the transition from atomic gas to molecular gas, formation of molecular clouds and dense gas, interaction between star-forming regions and interstellar gas, and so on. We will also investigate the variation of physical properties and internal structures of molecular clouds in various environments, such as arm/interarm and bar, and evolutionary stage, for example, measured by star-forming activity.”
This new map from the Nobeyama holds a lot of promise. A rich data-set like this will be an important piece of the galactic puzzle for years to come. The details revealed in the map will help astronomers tease out more detail on the structures of gas clouds, how they interact with other structures, and how stars form from these clouds.
There’s nothing an astronomer – whether professional or amateur – loves more than a clear dark night sky away from the city lights. Outside the glare and glow and cloud cover that most of us experience every day, the night sky comes alive with a life of its own.
Thousands upon countless thousands of glittering jewels – each individual star a pinprick of light set against the velvet-smooth blackness of the deeper void. The arching band of the Milky Way, itself host to billions more stars so far away that we can only see their combined light from our vantage point. The familiar constellations, proudly showing their true character, drawing the eye and the mind to the ancient tales spun about them.
There are few places left in the world to see the sky as our ancestors did; to gaze in wonder at the celestial dome and feel the weight of billions of years of cosmic history hanging above us. Thankfully the International Dark Sky Association is working to preserve what’s left of the true night sky, and they’ve rightfully marked northern Chile to preserve for posterity.