What is a Supermassive Black Hole?

In 1971, English astronomers Donald Lynden-Bell and Martin Rees hypothesized that a supermassive black hole (SMBH) resides at the center of our Milky Way Galaxy. This was based on their work with radio galaxies, which showed that the massive amounts of energy radiated by these objects was due to gas and matter being accreted onto a black hole at their center.

By 1974, the first evidence for this SMBH was found when astronomers detected a massive radio source coming from the center of our galaxy. This region, which they named Sagittarius A*, is over 10 million times as massive as our own Sun. Since its discovery, astronomers have found evidence that there are supermassive black holes at the centers of most spiral and elliptical galaxies in the observable Universe.

Description:

Supermassive black holes (SMBH) are distinct from lower-mass black holes in a number of ways. For starters, since SMBH have a much higher mass than smaller black holes, they also have a lower average density. This is due to the fact that with all spherical objects, volume is directly proportional to the cube of the radius, while the minimum density of a black hole is inversely proportional to the square of the mass.

In addition, the tidal forces in the vicinity of the event horizon are significantly weaker for massive black holes. As with density, the tidal force on a body at the event horizon is inversely proportional to the square of the mass. As such, an object would not experience significant tidal force until it was very deep into the black hole.

Formation:

How SMBHs are formed remains the subject of much scholarly debate. Astrophysicists largely believe that they are the result of black hole mergers and the accretion of matter. But where the “seeds” (i.e. progenitors) of these black holes came from is where disagreement occurs. Currently, the most obvious hypothesis is that they are the remnants of several massive stars that exploded, which were formed by the accretion of matter in the galactic center.

Another theory is that before the first stars formed in our galaxy, a large gas cloud collapsed into a “qausi-star” that became unstable to radial perturbations. It then turned into a black hole of about 20 Solar Masses without the need for a supernova explosion. Over time, it rapidly accreted mass in order to become an intermediate, and then supermassive, black hole.

In yet another model, a dense stellar cluster experienced core-collapse as the as a result of velocity dispersion in its core, which happened at relativistic speeds due to negative heat capacity. Last, there is the theory that primordial black holes may have been produced directly by external pressure immediately after the Big Bang. These and other theories remain theoretical for the time being.

Sagittarius A*:

Multiple lines of evidence point towards the existence of a SMBH at the center of our galaxy. While no direct observations have been made of Sagittarius A*, its presence has been inferred from the influence it has on surrounding objects. The most notable of these is S2, a star that flows an elliptical orbit around the Sagittarius A* radio source.

S2 has an orbital period of 15.2 years and reaches a minimal distance of 18 billion km (11.18 billion mi, 120 AU) from the center of the central object. Only a supermassive object could account for this, since no other cause can be discerned. And from the orbital parameters of S2, astronomers have been able to produce estimates on the size and mass of the object.

For instance, S2s motions have led astronomers to calculated that the object at the center of its orbit must have no less than 4.1 million Solar Masses (8.2 × 10³³ metric tons; 9.04 × 10³³ US tons). Furthermore, the radius of this object would have to be less than 120 AU, otherwise S2 would collide with it.

However, the best evidence to date was provided in 2008 by the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics and UCLAs Galactic Center Group. Using data obtained over a 16 year period by the ESO’s Very Large Telescope and Keck Telescope, they were able to not only accurately estimate the distance to the center of our galaxy (27,000 light years from Earth), but also track the orbits of the stars there with immense precision.

As Reinhard Genzel, the team leader from the Max-Planck-Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics said:

Undoubtedly the most spectacular aspect of our long term study is that it has delivered what is now considered to be the best empirical evidence that supermassive black holes do really exist. The stellar orbits in the Galactic Centre show that the central mass concentration of four million solar masses must be a black hole, beyond any reasonable doubt.”

Another indication of Sagittarius A*s presence came on January 5th, 2015, when NASA reported a record-breaking X-ray flare coming from the center of our galaxy. Based on readings from the Chandra X-ray Observatory, they reported emissions that were 400 times brighter than usual. These were thought to be the result of an asteroid falling into the black hole, or by the entanglement of magnetic field lines within the gas flowing into it.

Other Galaxies:

Astronomers have also found evidence of SMBHs at the center of other galaxies within the Local Group and beyond. These include the nearby Andromeda Galaxy (M31) and elliptical galaxy M32, and the distant spiral galaxy NGC 4395. This is based on the fact that stars and gas clouds near the center of these galaxies show an observable increase in velocity.

Another indication is Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN), where massive bursts of radio, microwave, infrared, optical, ultra-violet (UV), X-ray and gamma ray wavebands are periodically detected coming from the regions of cold matter (gas and dust) at the center of larger galaxies. While the radiation is not coming from the black holes themselves, the influence such a massive object would have on surrounding matter is believed to be the cause.

In short, gas and dust form accretion disks at the center of galaxies that orbit supermassive black holes, gradually feeding them matter. The incredible force of gravity in this region compresses the disk’s material until it reaches millions of degrees kelvin, generating bright radiation and electromagnetic energy. A corona of hot material forms above the accretion disc as well, and can scatter photons up to X-ray energies.

The interaction between the SMBH rotating magnetic field and the accretion disk also creates powerful magnetic jets that fire material above and below the black hole at relativistic speeds (i.e. at a significant fraction of the speed of light). These jets can extend for hundreds of thousands of light-years, and are a second potential source of observed radiation.

When the Andromeda Galaxy merges with our own in a few billion years, the supermassive black hole that is at its center will merge with our own, producing a much more massive and powerful one. This interaction is likely to kick several stars out of our combined galaxy (producing rogue stars), and is also likely to cause our galactic nucleus (which is currently inactive) to become active one again.

The study of black holes is still in its infancy. And what we have learned over the past few decades alone has been both exciting and awe-inspiring. Whether they are lower-mass or supermassive, black holes are an integral part of our Universe and play an active role in its evolution.

Who knows what we will find as we peer deeper into the Universe? Perhaps some day we the technology, and sheer audacity, will exist so that we might attempt to peak beneath the veil of an event horizon. Can you imagine that happening?

We have written many interesting articles about black holes here at Universe Today. Here’s Beyond Any Reasonable Doubt: A Supermassive Black Hole Lives in Centre of Our Galaxy, X-Ray Flare Echo Reveals Supermassive Black Hole Torus, How Do You Weigh a Supermassive Black Hole? Take its Temperature, and What Happens When Supermassive Black Holes Collide?

Astronomy Cast also some relevant episodes on the subject. Here’s Episode 18: Black Holes Big and Small, and Episode 98: Quasars.

More to explore: Astronomy Cast’s episodes Quasars, and Black Holes Big and Small.

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What is Galactic Evolution?

On a clear night, you can make out the band of the Milky Way in the night sky. For millennia, astronomers looked upon it in awe, slowly coming to the realization that our Sun was merely one of billions of stars in the galaxy. Over time, as our instruments and methods improved, we came to realize that the Milky Way itself was merely one of billions of galaxies that make up the Universe.

Thanks to the discovery of Relativity and the speed of light, we have also come to understand that when we look through space, we are also looking back in time. By seeing an object 1 billion light-years away, we are also seeing how that object looked 1 billion years ago. This “time machine” effect has allowed astronomers to study how galaxies came to be (i.e. galactic evolution).

The process in which galaxies form and evolve is characterized by steady growth over time, which began shortly after the Big Bang. This process, and the eventual fate of galaxies, remain the subject of intense fascination, and is still fraught with its share of mysteries.

Illustration of the depth by which Hubble imaged galaxies in prior Deep Field initiatives, in units of the Age of the Universe. The goal of the Frontier Fields is to peer back further than the Hubble Ultra Deep Field and get a wealth of images of galaxies as they existed in the first several hundred million years after the Big Bang. Note that the unit of time is not linear in this illustration. Illustration Credit: NASA and A. Feild (STScI)
Illustration of the depth by which Hubble imaged galaxies in prior Deep Field initiatives, in units of the Age of the Universe. Credit: NASA and A. Feild (STScI)

Galaxy Formation:

The current scientific consensus is that all matter in the Universe was created roughly 13.8 billion years ago during an event known as the Big Bang. At this time, all matter was compacted into a very small ball with infinite density and intense heat called a Singularity. Suddenly, the Singularity began expanding, and the Universe as we know it began.

After rapidly expanding and cooling, all matter was almost uniform in distribution. Over the course of the several billion years that followed, the slightly denser regions of the Universe began to become gravitationally attracted to each other. They therefore grew even denser, forming gas clouds and large clumps of matter.

These clumps became primordial galaxies, as the clouds of hydrogen gas within the proto-galaxies underwent gravitational collapse to become the first stars. Some of these early objects were small, and became tiny dwarf galaxies, while others were much larger and became the familiar spiral shapes, like our own Milky Way.

Galactic Mergers:

Once formed, these galaxies evolved together in larger galactic structures called groups, clusters and superclusters. Over time, galaxies were attracted to one another by the force of their gravity, and collided together in a series of mergers. The outcome of these mergers depends on the mass of the galaxies in the collision.

Small galaxies are torn apart by larger galaxies and added to the mass of larger galaxies. Our own Milky Way recently devoured a few dwarf galaxies, turning them into streams of stars that orbit the galactic core. But when large galaxies of similar size come together, they become giant elliptical galaxies.

When this happens, the delicate spiral structure is lost, and the merged galaxies become large and elliptical. Elliptical galaxies are some of the largest galaxies ever observed. Another consequence of these mergers is that the supermassive black holes (SMBH) at their centers become even larger.

Not all mergers will result in elliptical galaxies, mind you. But all mergers result in a change in the structure of the merged galaxies. For example, it is believed that the Milky Way is experiencing a minor merger event with the nearby Magellanic Clouds; and in recent years, it has been determined that the Canis Major dwarf galaxy has merged with our own.

While mergers are seen as violent events, actual collisions are not expected to happen between star systems, given the vast distances between stars. However, mergers can result in gravitational shock waves, which are capable of triggering the formation of new stars. This is what is predicted to happen when our own Milky Way galaxy merges with the Andromeda galaxy in about 4 billion years time.

Galactic Death:

Ultimately, galaxies cease forming stars once they deplete their supply of cold gas and dust. As the supply runs out, star forming slows over the course of billions of years until it ceases entirely. However, ongoing mergers will ensure that fresh stars, gas and dust are deposited in older galaxies, thus prolonging their lives.

At present, it is believed that our galaxy has used up most of its hydrogen, and star formation will slow down until the supply is depleted. Stars like our Sun can only last for 10 billion years or so; but the smallest, coolest red dwarfs can last for a few trillion years. However, thanks to the presence of dwarf galaxies and our impending merger with Andromeda, our galaxy could exist even longer.

However, all galaxies in this vicinity of the Universe will eventually become gravitationally bound to each other and merge into a giant elliptical galaxy. Astronomers have seen examples of these sorts of “fossil galaxies”, a good of which is Messier 49 – a supermassive elliptical galaxy.

These galaxies have used up all their reserves of star forming gas, and all that’s left are the longer lasting stars. Eventually, over vast lengths of time, those stars will wink out one after the other, until the whole thing is the background temperature of the Universe.

After our galaxy merges with Andromeda, and goes on to merge with all other nearby galaxies in the local group, we can expect that it too will undergo a similar fate. And so, galaxy evolution has been occurring over billions of years, and it will continue to happen for the foreseeable future.

We have written many articles about galaxies for Universe Today. Here’s What is the Milky Way?, How did the Milky Way Form?, What Happens When Galaxies Collide?, What Happens When Galaxies Die?, A New Spin on Galactic Evolution, and Supercomputer will Study Galaxy Evolution,

If you’d like more info on galaxies, check out Hubblesite’s News Releases on Galaxies, and here’s NASA’s Science Page on Galaxies.

We have also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast about galaxies – Episode 97: Galaxies.

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What Happens When Galaxies Collide?

We don’t want to scare you, but our own Milky Way is on a collision course with Andromeda, the closest spiral galaxy to our own. At some point during the next few billion years, our galaxy and Andromeda – which also happen to be the two largest galaxies in the Local Group – are going to come together, and with catastrophic consequences.

Stars will be thrown out of the galaxy, others will be destroyed as they crash into the merging supermassive black holes. And the delicate spiral structure of both galaxies will be destroyed as they become a single, giant, elliptical galaxy. But as cataclysmic as this sounds, this sort of process is actually a natural part of galactic evolution.

Astronomers have know about this impending collision for some time. This is based on the direction and speed of our galaxy and Andromeda’s. But more importantly, when astronomers look out into the Universe, they see galaxy collisions happening on a regular basis.

The Antennae galaxies. Credit: Hubble / ESA
The Antennae galaxies, a pair of interacting galaxies located 45 – 65 million light years from Earth. Credit: Hubble / ESA

Gravitational Collisions:

Galaxies are held together by mutual gravity and orbit around a common center. Interactions between galaxies is quite common, especially between giant and satellite galaxies. This is often the result of a galaxies drifting too close to one another, to the point where the gravity of the satellite galaxy will attract one of the giant galaxy’s primary spiral arms.

In other cases, the path of the satellite galaxy may cause it to intersect with the giant galaxy. Collisions may lead to mergers, assuming that neither galaxy has enough momentum to keep going after the collision has taken place. If one of the colliding galaxies is much larger than the other, it will remain largely intact and retain its shape, while the smaller galaxy will be stripped apart and become part of the larger galaxy.

Such collisions are relatively common, and Andromeda is believed to have collided with at least one other galaxy in the past. Several dwarf galaxies (such as the Sagittarius Dwarf Spheroidal Galaxy) are currently colliding with the Milky Way and merging with it.

However, the word collision is a bit of a misnomer, since the extremely tenuous distribution of matter in galaxies means that actual collisions between stars or planets is extremely unlikely.

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) and many other telescopes on the ground and in space have been used to obtain the best view yet of a collision that took place between two galaxies when the Universe was only half its current age. The astronomers enlisted the help of a galaxy-sized magnifying glass to reveal otherwise invisible detail. These new studies of the galaxy H-ATLAS J142935.3-002836 have shown that this complex and distant object looks surprisingly like the well-known local galaxy collision, the Antennae Galaxies. In this picture you can see the foreground galaxy that is doing the lensing, which resembles how our home galaxy, the Milky Way, would appear if seen edge-on. But around this galaxy there is an almost complete ring — the smeared out image of a star-forming galaxy merger far beyond. This picture combines the views from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and the Keck-II telescope on Hawaii (using adaptive optics). Credit: ESO/NASA/ESA/W. M. Keck Observatory
Image obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope and the Keck-II telescope, showing a collision that took place billions of years ago. Credit: ESO/NASA/ESA/W. M. Keck Observatory

Andromeda–Milky Way Collision:

In 1929, Edwin Hubble revealed observational evidence which showed that distant galaxies were moving away from the Milky Way. This led him to create Hubble’s Law, which states that a galaxy’s distance and velocity can be determined by measuring its redshift – i.e. a phenomena where an object’s light is shifted toward the red end of the spectrum when it is moving away.

However, spectrographic measurements performed on the light coming from Andromeda showed that its light was shifted towards the blue end of the spectrum (aka. blueshift). This indicated that unlike most galaxies that have been observed since the early 20th century, Andromeda is moving towards us.

In 2012, researchers determined that a collision between the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy was sure to happen, based on Hubble data that tracked the motions of Andromeda from 2002 to 2010. Based on measurements of its blueshift, it is estimated that Andromeda is approaching our galaxy at a rate of about 110 km/second (68 mi/s).

At this rate, it will likely collide with the Milky Way in around 4 billion years. These studies also suggest that M33, the Triangulum Galaxy – the third largest and brightest galaxy of the Local Group – will participate in this event as well. In all likelihood, it will end up in orbit around the Milky Way and Andromeda, then collide with the merger remnant at a later date.

Galactic Wrecks Far from Earth: These images from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope's ACS in 2004 and 2005 show four examples of interacting galaxies far away from Earth. The galaxies, beginning at far left, are shown at various stages of the merger process. The top row displays merging galaxies found in different regions of a large survey known as the AEGIS. More detailed views are in the bottom row of images. (Credit: NASA; ESA; J. Lotz, STScI; M. Davis, University of California, Berkeley; and A. Koekemoer, STScI)
Images from Hubble’s ACS in 2004 and 2005 show four examples of interacting galaxies (at various stages in the process) far away from Earth. Credit: NASA/ESA/J. Lotz, STScI/M. Davis, University of California, Berkeley/A. Koekemoer, STScI.

Consequences:

In a galaxy collision, large galaxies absorb smaller galaxies entirely, tearing them apart and incorporating their stars. But when the galaxies are similar in size – like the Milky Way and Andromeda – the close encounter destroys the spiral structure entirely. The two groups of stars eventually become a giant elliptical galaxy with no discernible spiral structure.

Such interactions can also trigger a small amount of star formation. When the galaxies collide, it causes vast clouds of hydrogen to collect and become compressed, which can trigger a series of gravitational collapses. A galaxy collision also causes a galaxy to age prematurely, since much of its gas is converted into stars.

After this period of rampant star formation, galaxies run out of fuel. The youngest hottest stars detonate as supernovae, and all that’s left are the older, cooler red stars with much longer lives. This is why giant elliptical galaxies, the results of galaxy collisions, have so many old red stars and very little active star formation.

Despite the Andromeda Galaxy containing about 1 trillion stars and the Milky Way containing about 300 billion, the chance of even two stars colliding is negligible because of the huge distances between them. However, both galaxies contain central supermassive black holes, which will converge near the center of the newly-formed galaxy.

Two galaxies are squaring off in Corvus and here are the latest pictures.. Credit: B. Whitmore (STScI), F. Schweizer (DTM), NASA
Two galaxies colliding in the Corvus constellation. Credit: B. Whitmore (STScI), F. Schweizer (DTM),

This black hole merger will cause orbital energy to be transferred to stars, which will be moved to higher orbits over the course of millions of years. When the two black holes come within a light year of one another, they will emit gravitational waves that will radiate further orbital energy, until they merge completely.

Gas taken up by the combined black hole could create a luminous quasar or an active nucleus to form at the center of the galaxy. And last, the effects of a black hole merger could also kick stars out of the larger galaxy, resulting in hypervelocity rogue stars that could even carry their planets with them.

Today, it is understood that galactic collisions are a common feature in our Universe. Astronomy now frequently simulate them on computers, which realistically simulate the physics involved – including gravitational forces, gas dissipation phenomena, star formation, and feedback.

And be sure to check out this video of the impending galactic collision, courtesy of NASA:

We have written many articles about galaxies for Universe Today. Here’s What is Galactic Cannibalism?, Watch Out! Galactic Collisions Could Snuff Out Star Formation, New Hubble Release: Dramatic Galaxy Collision, A Virtual Galactic Smash-Up!, It’s Inevitable: Milky Way, Andromeda Galaxy Heading for Collision, A Cosmic Collision: Our Best View Yet of Two Distant Galaxies Merging, and Determining the Galaxy Collision Rate.

If you’d like more info on galaxies, check out Hubblesite’s News Releases on Galaxies, and here’s NASA’s Science Page on Galaxies.

We have also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast about galaxies – Episode 97: Galaxies.

Sources:

Will Our Black Hole Eat the Milky Way?

Want to hear something cool? There’s a black hole at the center of the Milky Way. And not just any black hole, it’s a supermassive black hole with more than 4.1 million times the mass of the Sun.

It’s right over there, in the direction of the Sagittarius constellation. Located just 26,000 light-years away. And as we speak, it’s in the process of tearing apart entire stars and star systems, occasionally consuming them, adding to its mass like a voracious shark.

Sagittarius A*. Image credit: Chandra
Sagittarius A*. Image credit: Chandra

Wait, that doesn’t sound cool, that sort of sounds a little scary. Right?

Don’t worry, you have absolutely nothing to worry about, unless you plan to live for quadrillions of years, which I do, thanks to my future robot body. I’m ready for my singularity, Dr. Kurzweil.

Is the supermassive black hole going to consume the Milky Way? If not, why not? If so, why so?

The discovery of a supermassive black hole at the heart of the Milky Way, and really almost all galaxies, is one of my favorite discoveries in the field of astronomy. It’s one of those insights that simultaneously answered some questions, and opened up even more.

Back in the 1970s, the astronomers Bruce Balick and Robert Brown realized that there was an intense source of radio emissions coming from the very center of the Milky Way, in the constellation Sagittarius.

They designated it Sgr A*. The asterisk stands for exciting. You think I’m joking, but I’m not. For once, I’m not joking.

An illustration of Saggitarius A*. Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

In 2002, astronomers observed that there were stars zipping past this object, like comets on elliptical paths going around the Sun. Imagine the mass of our Sun, and the tremendous power it would take to wrench a star like that around.

The only objects with that much density and gravity are black holes, but in this case, a black hole with millions of times the mass of our own Sun: a supermassive black hole.

With the discovery of the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole, astronomers found evidence that there are black holes at the heart of every galaxy.

At the same time, the discovery of supermassive black holes helped answer one of the big questions in astronomy: what are quasars? We did a whole article on them, but they’re intensely bright objects, generating enough light they can be seen billions of light-years away. Giving off more energy than the rest of their own galaxy combined.

The quasar SDSS J1106+1939 has the most energetic outflows ever seen, at least five times more powerful than any that have been observed to date. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

It turns out that quasars and supermassive black holes are the same thing. Quasars are just black holes in the process of actively feeding; gobbling up so much material it piles up in an accretion disk around it. Once again, these do sound terrifying. But are we in any danger?

In the short term, no. The black hole at the center of the Milky Way is 26,000 light-years away. Even if it turned into a quasar and started eating stars, you wouldn’t even be able to notice it from this distance.

A black hole is just a concentration of mass in a very small region, which things orbit around. To give you an example, you could replace the Sun with a black hole with the exact same mass, and nothing would change. I mean, we’d all freeze because there wasn’t a Sun in the sky anymore, but the Earth would continue to orbit this black hole in exactly the same orbit, for billions of years.

Same goes with the black hole at the center of the Milky Way. It’s not pulling material in like a vacuum cleaner, it serves as a gravitational anchor for a group of stars to orbit around, for billions of years.

In order for a black hole to actually consume a star, it needs to make a direct hit. To get within the event horizon, which is only about 17 times bigger than the Sun. If a star gets close, without hitting, it’ll get torn apart, but still, it doesn’t happen very often.

A black hole, with an accretion disk, consuming a star. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

The problem happens when these stars interact with one another through their own gravity, and mess with each other’s orbits. A star that would have been orbiting happily for billions of years might get deflected into a collision course with the black hole. But this happens very rarely.

Over the short term, that supermassive black hole is totally harmless. Especially from out here in the galactic suburbs.

But there are a few situations that might cause some problems over vast periods of time.

The first panic will happen when the Milky Way collides with Andromeda in about 4 billion years – let’s call this mess Milkdromeda. Suddenly, you’ll have two whole clouds of stars interacting in all kinds of ways, like an unstable blended family. Stars that would have been safe will careen past other stars and be deflected down into the maw of either of the two supermassive black holes on hand. Andromeda’s black hole could be 100 million times the mass of the Sun, so it’s a bigger target for stars with a death wish.

View of Milkdromeda from Earth "shortly" after the merger, around 3.85-3.9 billion years from now Credit: NASA, ESA, Z. Levay and R. van der Marel (STScI), T. Hallas, and A. Mellinger
View of Milkdromeda from Earth “shortly” after the merger, around 3.85-3.9 billion years from now Credit: NASA, ESA, Z. Levay and R. van der Marel (STScI), T. Hallas, and A. Mellinger

Over the coming billions, trillions and quadrillions of years, more and more galaxies will collide with Milkdromeda, bringing new supermassive black holes and more stars to the chaos.

So many opportunities for mayhem.

Of course, the Sun will die in about 5 billion years, so this future won’t be our problem. Well, fine, with my eternal robot body, it might still be my problem.

After our neighborhood is completely out of galaxies to consume, then there will just be countless eons of time for stars to interact for orbit after orbit. Some will get flung out of Milkdromeda, some will be hurled down into the black hole.

And others will be safe, assuming they can avoid this fate over the Googol years it’ll take for the supermassive black hole to finally evaporate. That’s a 1 followed by 100 zeroes years. That’s a really really long time, so now I don’t like those odds.

For our purposes, the black hole at the heart of the Milky Way is completely and totally safe. In the lifetime of the Sun, it won’t interact with us in any way, or consume more than a handful of stars.

But over the vast eons, it could be a different story. I hope we can be around to find out the answer.

Where is Earth in the Milky Way?

For thousand of years, astronomers and astrologers believed that the Earth was at the center of our Universe. This perception was due in part to the fact that Earth-based observations were complicated by the fact that the Earth is embedded in the Solar System. It was only after many centuries of continued observation and calculations that we discovered that the Earth (and all other bodies in the Solar System) actually orbits the Sun.

Much the same is true about our Solar System’s position within the Milky Way. In truth, we’ve only been aware of the fact that we are part of a much larger disk of stars that orbits a common center for about a century. And given that we are embedded within it, it has been historically difficult to ascertain our exact position. But thanks to ongoing efforts, astronomers now know where our Sun resides in the galaxy.

Size of the Milky Way:

For starters, the Milky Way is really, really big! Not only does it measure some 100,000–120,000 light-years in diameter and about 1,000 light-years thick, but up to 400 billion stars are located within it (though some estimates think there are even more). Since one light year is about 9.5 x 1012 km (9.5 trillion km) long, the diameter of the Milky Way galaxy is about 9.5 x 1017 to 11.4 x 1017 km, or 9,500 to 11,400 quadrillion km.

It became its current size and shape by eating up other galaxies, and is still doing so today. In fact, the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy is the closest galaxy to the Milky Way because its stars are currently being added to the Milky Way’s disk. And our galaxy has consumed others in its long history, such as the Sagittarius Dwarf Galaxy.

And yet, our galaxy is only a middle-weight when compared to other galaxies in the local Universe. Andromeda, the closest major galaxy to our own, is about twice as large as our own. It measures 220,000 light years in diameter, and has an estimated 400-800 billion stars within it.

Structure of the Milky Way:

If you could travel outside the galaxy and look down on it from above, you’d see that the Milky Way is a barred spiral galaxy. For the longest time, the Milky Way was thought to have 4 spiral arms, but newer surveys have determined that it actually seems to just have two spiral arms, called Scutum–Centaurus and Carina–Sagittarius.

The spiral arms are formed from density waves that orbit around the Milky Way – i.e. stars and clouds of gas clustered together. As these density waves move through an area, they compress the gas and dust, leading to a period of active star formation for the region. However, the existence of these arms has been determined from observing parts of the Milky Way – as well as other galaxies in our universe.

The Milky Way's basic structure is believed to involve two main spiral arms emanating from opposite ends of an elongated central bar. But only parts of the arms can be seen - gray segments indicate portions not yet detected. Other known spiral arm segments--including the Sun's own spur--are omitted for clarity. Credit: T. Dame
The Milky Way’s basic structure is believed to involve two main spiral arms emanating from opposite ends of an elongated central bar. Credit: T. Dame

In truth, all the pictures that depict our galaxy are either artist’s renditions or pictures of other spiral galaxies, and not the result of direct observation of the whole. Until recently, it was very difficult for scientists to gauge what the Milky Way really looks like, mainly because we’re inside it. It has only been through decades of observation, reconstruction and comparison to other galaxies that they have been to get a clear picture of what the Milky Way looks like from the outside.

From ongoing surveys of the night sky with ground-based telescopes, and more recent missions involving space telescopes, astronomers now estimate that there are between 100 and 400 billion stars in the Milky Way. They also think that each star has at least one planet, which means there are likely to be hundreds of billions of planets in the Milky Way – billions of which are believed to be the size and mass of the Earth.

As noted, much of the Milky Way’s arms is made up of dust and gas. This matter makes up a whopping 10-15% of all the “luminous matter” (i.e. that which is visible) in our galaxy, with the remainder being the stars. Our galaxy is roughly 100,000 light years across, and we can only see about 6,000 light years into the disk in the visible spectrum.

Still, when light pollution is not significant, the dusty ring of the Milky Way can be discerned in the night sky. What’s more, infrared astronomy and viewing the Universe in other, non-visible wavelengths has allowed astronomers to be able to see more of it.

The Milky Way, like all galaxies, is also surrounded by a vast halo of dark matter, which accounts for some 90% of its mass. Nobody knows precisely what dark matter is, but its mass has been inferred by observations of how fast the galaxy rotates and other general behaviors. More importantly, it is believed that this mass helps keep the galaxy from tearing itself apart as it rotates.

The Solar System:

The Solar System (and Earth) is located about 25,000 light-years to the galactic center and 25,000 light-years away from the rim. So basically, if you were to think of the Milky Way as a big record, we would be the spot that’s roughly halfway between the center and the edge.

Astronomers have agreed that the Milky Way probably has two major spiral arms – Perseus arm and the Scutum-Centaurus arm – with several smaller arms and spurs. The Solar System is located in a region in between the two arms called the Orion-Cygnus arm. This arm measures 3,500 light-years across and is 10,000 light-years in length, where it breaks off from the Sagittarius Arm.

our location in the Orion Spur of the Milky Way galaxy. image credit: Roberto Mura/Public Domain
The location of our Solar Systemin the Orion Spur of the Milky Way galaxy. Credit: Roberto Mura/Public Domain

The fact that the Milky Way divides the night sky into two roughly equal hemispheres indicates that the Solar System lies near the galactic plane. The Milky Way has a relatively low surface brightness due to the gases and dust that fills the galactic disk. That prevents us from seeing the bright galactic center or from observing clearly what is on the other side of it.

You might be surprised to learn that it takes the Sun 250 million years to complete one rotation around the Milky Way – this is what is known as a “Galactic Year” or “Cosmic Year”. The last time the Solar System was in this position in the Milky Way, there were still dinosaurs on Earth. The next time, who knows? Humanity might be extinct, or it might have evolved into something else entirely.

As you can see, the Milky Way alone is a very big place. And discerning our location within it has been no simple task. And as our knowledge of the Universe has expanded, we’ve come to learn two things. Not only is the Universe much larger than we could have ever imagined, but our place within in continues to shrink! Our Solar System, it seems, is both insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but also extremely precious!

We have written many articles about the Milky Way for Universe Today. Here’s 10 Interesting Facts about the Milky Way, How Big is the Milky Way?, What is the Closest Galaxy to the Milky Way?, and How Many Stars Are There in the Milky Way?

If you’d like more info on the Milky Way, check out Hubblesite’s News Releases on Galaxies, and here’s NASA’s Science Page on Galaxies.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about the Milky Way. Listen here, Episode 99: The Milky Way.

The Early Universe Was All About Galactic Hook Ups

In about 4 billion years, scientists estimate that the Andromeda and the Milky Way galaxies are expected to collide, based on data from the Hubble Space Telescope. And when they merge, they will give rise to a super-galaxy that some are already calling Milkomeda or Milkdromeda (I know, awful isn’t it?) While this may sound like a cataclysmic event, these sorts of galactic collisions are quite common on a cosmic timescale.

As an international group of researchers from Japan and California have found, galactic “hookups” were quite common during the early universe. Using data from the Hubble Space Telescope and the Subaru Telescope at in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, they have discovered that 1.2 billion years after the Big Bang, galactic clumps grew to become large galaxies by merging. As part of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) “Cosmic Evolution Survey (COSMOS)”, this information could tell us a great about the formation of the early universe.

Continue reading “The Early Universe Was All About Galactic Hook Ups”

Andromeda and Milky Way Might Collide Sooner Than We Think

The merger of the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxy won’t happen for another 4 billion years, but the recent discovery of a massive halo of hot gas around Andromeda may mean our galaxies are already touching. University of Notre Dame astrophysicist Nicholas Lehner led a team of scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope to identify an enormous halo of hot, ionized gas at least 2 million light years in diameter surrounding the galaxy.

The Andromeda Galaxy is the largest member of a ragtag collection of some 54 galaxies, including the Milky Way, called the Local Group. With a trillion stars — twice as many as the Milky Way — it shines 25% brighter and can easily be seen with the naked eye from suburban and rural skies.

Quasars are distant, brilliant sources of light, believed to occur when a massive black hole in the center of a galaxy feeds on gas and stars. As the black hole consumes the material, it emits intense radiation, which is then detected as a quasar. These photos, taken by Hubble, show them as brilliant "stars" in the cores of six different galaxies. Credit: NASA/ESA
Six examples of quasars photographed with the Hubble. Quasars are distant, brilliant sources of light, believed to occur when a massive black hole in the center of a galaxy feeds on gas and stars. As the black hole consumes the material, it emits intense radiation, which is then detected as a quasar. Lehner and team measured Andromeda’s halo by studying how its gas affected the light from 18 different quasars.  Credit: NASA/ESA

Think about this for a moment. If the halo extends at least a million light years in our direction, our two galaxies are MUCH closer to touching that previously thought. Granted, we’re only talking halo interactions at first, but the two may be mingling molecules even now if our galaxy is similarly cocooned.

Lehner describes halos as the “gaseous atmospheres of galaxies”.  Despite its enormous size, Andromeda’s nimbus is virtually invisible. To find and study the halo, the team sought out quasars, distant star-like objects that radiate tremendous amounts of energy as matter funnels into the supermassive black holes in their cores. The brightest quasar, 3C273 in Virgo, can be seen in a 6-inch telescope! Their brilliant, pinpoint nature make them perfect probes.

To detect Andromeda's halo, Lehner and team studied how the light of 18 quasars (five shown here) was absorbed by the galaxy's gas. Credit: NASA
To detect Andromeda’s halo, Lehner and team studied how the light of 18 quasars (five shown here) was absorbed by the galaxy’s gas. Credit: NASA

“As the light from the quasars travels toward Hubble, the halo’s gas will absorb some of that light and make the quasar appear a little darker in just a very small wavelength range,” said J. Christopher Howk , associate professor of physics at Notre Dame and co-investigator. “By measuring the dip in brightness, we can tell how much halo gas from M31 there is between us and that quasar.”

Astronomers have observed halos around 44 other galaxies but never one as massive as Andromeda where so many quasars are available to clearly define its extent. The previous 44 were all extremely distant galaxies, with only a single quasar or data point to determine halo size and structure.

Andromeda’s close and huge with lots of quasars peppering its periphery. The team drew from about five years’ worth of observations of archived Hubble data to find many of the 18 objects needed for a good sample.

This illustration shows a stage in the predicted merger between our Milky Way galaxy and the neighboring Andromeda galaxy, as it will unfold over the next several billion years. In this image, representing Earth's night sky in 3.75 billion years, Andromeda (left) fills the field of view and begins to distort the Milky Way with tidal pull. (Credit: NASA; ESA; Z. Levay and R. van der Marel, STScI; T. Hallas; and A. Mellinger)
This illustration shows a stage in the predicted merger between our Milky Way galaxy and the neighboring Andromeda galaxy, as it will unfold over the next several billion years. In this image, representing Earth’s night sky in 3.75 billion years, Andromeda (left) fills the field of view and begins to distort the Milky Way with tidal pull. Credit: NASA; ESA; Z. Levay and R. van der Marel, STScI; T. Hallas; and A. Mellinger

The halo is estimated to contain half the mass of the stars in the Andromeda galaxy itself, in the form of a hot, diffuse gas. Simulations suggest that it formed at the same time as the rest of the galaxy. Although mostly composed of ionized hydrogen — naked protons and electrons —  Andromeda’s aura is also rich in heavier elements, probably supplied by supernovae. They erupt within the visible galaxy and violently blow good stuff like iron, silicon, oxygen and other familiar elements far into space. Over Andromeda’s lifetime, nearly half of all the heavy elements made by its stars have been expelled far beyond the galaxy’s 200,000-light-year-diameter stellar disk.

You might wonder if galactic halos might account for some or much of the still-mysterious dark matter. Probably not. While dark matter still makes up the bulk of the solid material in the universe, astronomers have been trying to account for the lack of visible matter in galaxies as well. Halos now seem a likely contributor.

The next clear night you look up to spy Andromeda, know this: It’s closer than you think!

For more on the topic, here are links to Lehner’s paper in the Astrophysical Journal and the Hubble release.

Disorderly Conduct: Andromeda’s Mature Stars Exhibit Surprising Behavior, Says Study

The Andromeda Galaxy will collide with the Milky Way in the future. Credit: Adam Evans

To a distant observer, our own Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy would probably look very similar. Although Andromeda is longer, more massive, and more luminous than the Milky Way, both galaxies are vast spirals composed of hundreds of millions of stars. But new research presented at this week’s AAS conference in Seattle suggests that there are other differences as well – namely, in the movement and behavior of certain stellar age groups. This observation is the first of its kind, and raises new questions about the factors that contribute to the formation of spiral galaxies like our own.

Armed with data from both the Hubble Space Telescope and the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, a group of astronomers from UC Santa Cruz resolved 10,000 tiny points of light in the Andromeda galaxy into individual stars and used their spectra to calculate the stars’ ages and velocities – a feat never before accomplished for a galaxy outside of our own.

Led by Puragra Guhathakurta, a professor of astrophysics, and Claire Dorman, a graduate student, the researchers found that in Andromeda, the behavior of older stars is surprisingly more frazzled than that of their younger counterparts; that is, they have a much wider range of velocities around the galactic center. Meanwhile, in the Milky Way, stars of all ages seem to coexist far more peacefully, moving along at the same speed in a consistent, ordered pack.

The astronomers believe that this asymmetry causes Andromeda to look more distinct from our own galaxy than previously thought. “If you could look at [Andromeda’s] disk edge on, the stars in the well-ordered, coherent population would lie in a very thin plane, whereas the stars in the disordered population would form a much puffier layer,” said Dorman.

What could account for such disorderly conduct among Andromeda’s older generation? It is possible that these more mature stars could have been disturbed long ago, during episodes of the kind of “galactic cannibalism” that is thought to go on among most spiral galaxies. Indeed, trails of stars in its outer halo suggest that Andromeda has collided with and consumed a number of smaller galaxies over the course of its lifetime; however, these effects cannot completely account for the jumbled flow of Andromeda’s most elderly stars.

A few examples of merging galaxies. NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration and A. Evans (University of Virginia, Charlottesville/NRAO/Stony Brook University), K. Noll (STScI), and J. Westphal (Caltech)
A few examples of galactic cannibalism. NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration and A. Evans (University of Virginia, Charlottesville/NRAO/Stony Brook University), K. Noll (STScI), and J. Westphal (Caltech)

Astronomers believe that a second explanation could fill in the blanks – one that owes to events occurring far earlier in history, during the birth of the galaxy itself. After all, if Andromeda originated from a lumpy, irregular gas cloud, its oldest stars would naturally appear fairly disordered. Over time, the parent gas would have settled down, giving rise to ever more organized generations of stars.

Guhathakurta, Dorman, and the rest of the team hope that their work will encourage other scientists to create simulations that will better constrain these possibilities. To them, understanding Andromeda is a vital key to learning more about our own galaxy. Guhathakurta explained, “In the Andromeda galaxy we have the unique combination of a global yet detailed view of a galaxy similar to our own. We have lots of detail in our own Milky Way, but not the global, external perspective.”

Now, thanks to this new research, scientists can cite our own galaxy’s comparative orderliness as strong evidence that we live in a quieter, less cannibalistic neighborhood than most other spiral galaxies in the Universe. “Even the most well ordered Andromeda stars are not as well ordered as the stars in the Milky Way’s disk,” said Dorman.

At least until 4 billion years from now, when the Milky Way and Andromeda collide.

We may as well enjoy the A+ for conduct while we can.

Andromeda Galaxy Shines In Nosehair-Closeup Glory

Woah, is that ever close! The Hubble Space Telescope’s new picture of the Andromeda Galaxy makes us feel as though we’re hovering right above the iconic structure, which is visible with the naked eye from Earth under the right conditions.

Just to show you how awesome this close-up is, we’ve posted a picture below the jump showing what is the typical view of M31 in a more modest telescope.

“This ambitious photographic cartography of the Andromeda galaxy represents a new benchmark for precision studies of large spiral galaxies that dominate the universe’s population of over 100 billion galaxies,” stated the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), which operates the telescope.

“Never before have astronomers been able to see individual stars inside an external spiral galaxy over such a large contiguous area. Most of the stars in the universe live inside such majestic star cities, and this is the first data that reveal populations of stars in context to their home galaxy.”

M31 (image credit: Noel Carboni).
M31 (image credit: Noel Carboni).

Andromeda is about 2.5 million light-years from us and on a collision course with our galaxy. The image at the top of this story is actually not a single picture; it was assembled from an astounding 7,398 exposures taken over 411 individual pointings, according to STScI.

The image is so big, in fact, that there’s a zoomable version that was released separately so that you can get a better sense of how high-definition this view is. Dontcha wish you could take a light-travel ship and see this thing up close, for real?

Sources: Space Telescope Science Institute and Hubble European Space Agency Information Centre

Dwarf Galaxies That Dance? Andromeda Observations Reveal A Larger Cosmic Mystery

Astrophoto: Andromeda Galaxy by Fabio Bortoli

What is up with these dwarf galaxies? A survey of thousands of galaxies using the Sloan Digital Sky Survey reveals something interesting, which was first revealed by looking at the massive Andromeda Galaxy nearby Earth: dwarf galaxies orbiting larger ones are often in disc-shaped orbits and not distributed randomly, as astronomers expected.

The finding follows on from research in 2013 that showed that 50% of Andromeda’s dwarf galaxies are in a single plane about a million light-years in diameter, but only 300,000 light-years thick. Now with the larger discovery, scientists suspect that perhaps there is a yet-to-be found process that is controlling gas flow in the cosmos.

“We were surprised to find that a large proportion of pairs of satellite galaxies have oppositely directed velocities if they are situated on opposite sides of their giant galaxy hosts,” stated lead author Neil Ibata of Lycée International in France.

“Everywhere we looked, we saw this strangely coherent coordinated motion of dwarf galaxies,” added Geraint Lewis, a University of Sydney physicist. “From this we can extrapolate that these circular planes of dancing dwarfs are universal, seen in about 50 percent of galaxies. This is a big problem that contradicts our standard cosmological models. It challenges our understanding of how the universe works, including the nature of dark matter.”

The astronomers also speculated this could show something unexpected in the laws of physics, such as motion and gravity, but added it would take far more investigation to figure that out.

The findings were published in the journal Nature.

Source: University of Sydney