Astronomers Poised to Capture Image of Supermassive Milky Way Black Hole

Scientists have long suspected that supermassive black holes (SMBH) reside at the center of every large galaxy in our universe. These can be billions of times more massive than our sun, and are so powerful that activity at their boundaries can ripple throughout their host galaxies.

In the case of the Milky Way galaxy, this SMBH is believed to correspond with the location of a complex radio source known as Sagittarius A*.  Like all black holes, no one has even been able to confirm that they exist, simply because no one has ever been able to observe one.

But thanks to researchers working out of MIT’s Haystack Observatory, that may be about to change. Using a new telescope array known as the “Event Horizon Telescope” (EHT), the MIT team hopes to produce this “image of the century” very soon.Initially predicted by Einstein, scientists have been forced to study black holes by observing their apparent effect on space and matter in their vicinity. These include stellar bodies that have periodically disappeared into dark regions, never to be heard from again.

As Sheperd Doeleman, assistant director of the Haystack Observatory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said of black holes: “It’s an exit door from our universe. You walk through that door, you’re not coming back.”

Image of the M87 Galaxy, 50 million ly from the Milky Way, which is believed to have a SMBH at its center. Credit: NASA/CXC/KIPAC/NSF/NRAO/AUI
Image of the M87, a giant elliptical galaxy that is believed to have a SMBH at its center. Credit: NASA/CXC/KIPAC/NSF/NRAO/AUI

As the most extreme object predict by Einstein’s theory of gravity, supermassive black holes are the places in space where, according to Doeleman, “gravity completely goes haywire and crushes an enormous mass into an incredibly close space.”

To create the EHT array, the scientists linked together radio dishes in Hawaii, Arizona, and California. The combined power of the EHT means that it can see details 2,000 times finer than what’s visible to the Hubble Space Telescope.

These radio dishes were then trained on M87, a galaxy some 50 million light years from the Milky Way in the Virgo Cluster, and Sagittarius A* to study the event horizons at their cores.

Other instruments have been able to observe and measure the effects of a black hole on stars, planets, and light. But so far, no one has ever actually seen the Milky Way’s Supermassive black hole.

According to David Rabanus, instruments manager for ALMA: “There is no telescope available which can resolve such a small radius,” he said. “It’s a very high-mass black hole, but that mass is concentrated in a very, very small region.”

Doeleman’s research focuses on studying super massive black holes with sufficient resolution to directly observe the event horizon. To do this his group assembles global networks of telescopes that observe at mm wavelengths to create an Earth-size virtual telescope using the technique of Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI).

Sagittarius A
Image of Sagittarius A*, the complex radio source at the center of the Milky Way, and believed to be a SMBH. Credit: NASA/Chandra

“We target SgrA*, the 4 million solar mass black hole at the center of the Milky Way, and M87, a giant elliptical galaxy,” says Doeleman. “Both of these objects present to us the largest apparent event horizons in the Universe, and both can be resolved by (sub)mm VLBI arrays.” he added. “We call this project The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT).”

Ultimately, the EHT project is a world-wide collaboration that combines the resolving power of numerous antennas from a global network of radio telescopes to capture the first image ever of the most exotic object in our Universe – the event horizon of a black hole.

“In essence, we are making a virtual telescope with a mirror that is as big as the Earth,” said Doeleman who is the principal investigator of the Event Horizon Telescope. “Each radio telescope we use can be thought of as a small silvered portion of a large mirror. With enough such silvered spots, one can start to make an image.”

“The Event Horizon Telescope is the first to resolve spatial scales comparable to the size of the event horizon of a black hole,” said University of California, Berkeley astronomer Jason Dexter. “I don’t think it’s crazy to think we might get an image in the next five years.”

First postulated by Albert Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, the existence of black holes has since been supported by decades’ worth of observations, measurements, and experiments. But never has it been possible to directly observe and image one of these maelstroms, whose sheer gravitational power twists and mangle the very fabric of space and time.

Finally being able to observe one will not only be a major scientific breakthrough, but could very well provide the most impressive imagery ever captured.

How Much of the Universe is Black Holes?

We all fear black holes, but how many of them are there out there, really? Between the stellar mass black holes and the supermassive ones, just how much of our Universe is black holes?

There are two kinds of black holes in the Universe that we know of: There’s stellar mass black holes, formed from massive stars, and a supermassive black holes which lives at the hearts of galaxies.

About 1 in a 1000 stars have enough mass to become a black hole when they die. Our Milky Way has 100 billion stars, this means it could have up to 100 million stellar mass black holes. As there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in the observable Universe, there are lots, lots more out there. In fact, the math suggests there’s a new black hole forming every second or so. So just to recap, the entire Universe is about 1/1000th “regular flavor” stellar mass black holes.

Supermassive black holes are a slightly different story. Our central galactic black hole is about 26,000 light years away from us. Formally, it’s called Sagittarius A-star, but for our purposes I’m going to call it Kevin. Just so you know they don’t throw that term “supermassive” around for no reason, Kevin contains 4.1 million times the mass of the Sun.

Kevin is gigantic and horrible. We can only imagine what it’s like to be in the region of space near Kevin. What percentage of the galaxy do you think Kevin makes up, mass wise?

Kevin, whilst absolutely super-massive, is a tiny, tiny 1/10,000 of a percent of the Milky Way galaxy’s mass. So, to be precise, if we add Kevin’s mass to the mass of all the stellar mass black holes aka. “mini-Kevins”, we get a very minor 11/10000s of a %.

As it turns out this ratio holds up on a Universal scale and is approximately the same for all the mass in the Universe. So, 11 ten thousandths of a percent is the answer to the question. As far as we know.

Unless… dark matter is black holes. Dark matter accounts for more than ¾ of the mass of the Universe. It doesn’t absorb light or interact with matter in any way. We’re only aware of its presence through its gravitational influence.

Artistic view of a radiating black hole.  Credit: NASA
Artistic view of a radiating black hole. Credit: NASA

As it turns out, Astronomers think that one explanation for dark matter might be primordial black holes. These microscopic black holes would have the mass of an asteroid or more and could only form in the high pressure, high temperature conditions after the Big Bang.

Experiments to search for primordial black holes have yet to turn up any evidence, and most scientists don’t think they’re a viable explanation. But if they were, then the Universe is almost entirely composed of the physics inspired nightmare that are black holes.

If it’s not the case now, in the far future, everything could be. Given enough time, all those stellar black holes and supermassive Kevins will scoop up all the available material in the Universe.

In 10 quintillion years everything in the Universe will have either fallen into a black hole, or been flung out on an escape trajectory. And then those black holes will slowly evaporate over time, as predicted by Stephen Hawking.

In 10^66 years the smallest stellar black holes will have evaporated. The most massive supermassive black holes could take 10^100 years. And then, there won’t be any black holes at all.

What do you think? Is it mostly black holes or almost no black holes? Tell us what you suspect in the comments below.

‘Light Echos’ Reveal Old, Bright Outbursts Near Milky Way’s Black Hole

How’s that for a beacon? NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory has tracked down evidence of at least a couple of past luminous outbursts near the Milky Way’s huge black hole. These flare-ups took place sometime in the past few hundred years, which is very recently in astronomical terms.

“The echoes from Sagittarius A were likely produced when large clumps of material, possibly from a disrupted star or planet, fell into the black hole,” the Chandra website stated.

“Some of the X-rays produced by these episodes then bounced off gas clouds about 30 to 100 light years away from the black hole, similar to how the sound from a person’s voice can bounce off canyon walls. Just as echoes of sound reverberate long after the original noise was created, so too do light echoes in space replay the original event.”

The astronomers saw evidence of “rapid variations” in how X-rays are emitted from gas clouds circling the hole, revealing clues that the area likely got a million times brighter at times.

Check out more information on Chandra’s website.

Gas Cloud Will Collide with our Galaxy’s Black Hole in 2013

Scientists have determined a giant gas cloud is on a collision course with the black hole in the center of our galaxy, and the two will be close enough by mid-2013 to provide a unique opportunity to observe how a super massive black hole sucks in material, in real time. This will give astronomers more information on how matter behaves near a black hole.

“The next few years will be really fantastic and exciting because we are probing new territory,” said Reinhard Genzel, leading a team from the ESO in observations with the Very Large Telescope. “Here this cloud comes in gets disrupted and now it will begin to interact with the hot gas right around the black hole. We have never seen this before.”

By June of 2013, the gas cloud is expected to be just 36 light-hours (equivalent to 40,000,000,000 km) away from our galaxy’s black hole, which is extremely close in astronomical terms.

Astronomers have determined the speed of the gas cloud has increased, doubling over the past seven years, and is now reaching more than 8 million km per hour. The cloud is estimated to be three times the mass of Earth and the density of the cloud is much higher than that of the hot gas surrounding black hole. But the black hole has a tremendous gravitational force, and so the gas cloud will fall into the direction of the black hole, be elongated and stretched and look like spaghetti, said Stefan Gillessen, astrophysicist at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Munich, Germany, who has been observing our galaxy’s black hole, known as Sagittarius A* (or Sgr A*), for 20 years.

“So far there were only two stars that came that close to Sagittarius A*,” Gillessen said. “They passed unharmed, but this time will be different: the gas cloud will be completely ripped apart by the tidal forces of the black hole.”

Watch a video of observations of the cloud for the past 10 years:

No one really knows how the collision will unfold, but the cloud’s edges have already started to shred and it is expected to break up completely over the coming months. As the time of actual collision approaches, the cloud is expected to get much hotter and will probably start to emit X-rays as a result of the interaction with the black hole.

Although direct observations of black holes are impossible, as they do not emit light or matter, astronomers can identify a black hole indirectly due to the gravitational forces observed in their vicinity.

A black hole is what remains after a super massive star dies. When the “fuel” of a star runs low, it will first swell and then collapse to a dense core. If this remnant core has more than three times the mass of our Sun, it will transform to a black hole. So-called super massive black holes are the largest type of black holes, as their mass equals hundreds of thousands to a billion times the mass of our Sun.

Black holes are thought to be at the center of all galaxies, but their origin is not fully understood and astrophysicists can only speculate as to what happens inside them. And so this upcoming collision just 27,000 light years away will likely provide new insights on the behavior of black holes.

Lead image caption: Images taken over the last decade using the NACO instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope show the motion of a cloud of gas that is falling towards the supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way. This is the first time ever that the approach of such a doomed cloud to a supermassive black hole has been observed and it is expected to break up completely during 2013. Credit: ESO/MPE

Read our previous article about this topic, from Dec. 2011.

Source: European Research Media Center

Chandra Stares Deep into the Heart of Sagittarius A*

Caption: Latest Chandra image of Sgr A*. Credits: X-ray: NASA/CXC/MIT/F. Baganoff, R. Shcherbakov et al.

How long can you stare at an object? This Chandra image of the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, known as Sagittarius A* (or Sgr A* for short)Sgr A* and the surrounding region is based on data from a series of observations lasting a total of about one million seconds, or almost two weeks. Such a deep observation has given scientists an unprecedented view of the nearby supernova remnant, known as Sgr A East, and the lobes of hot gas extending for a dozen light years on either side of the black hole. These lobes provide evidence for powerful eruptions occurring several times over the last ten thousand years. But this image also provides evidence that Sgr A* isn’t a very good eater.

Astronomers have known this for quite some time. The fuel for this black hole comes from powerful winds blown off dozens of massive young stars that are concentrated nearby. These stars are located a relatively large distance away from Sgr A*, where the gravity of the black hole is weak, and so their high-velocity winds are difficult for the black hole to capture and swallow. Scientists have previously calculated that Sgr A* should consume only about 1 percent of the fuel carried in the winds.

However, it now appears that Sgr A* consumes even less than expected — ingesting only about one percent of that one percent. Why does it consume so little? The answer may be found in a new theoretical model developed using data from a very deep exposure made by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. This model considers the flow of energy between two regions around the black hole: an inner region that is close to the so-called event horizon (the boundary beyond which even light cannot escape), and an outer region that includes the black hole’s fuel source — the young stars — extending up to a million times farther out. Collisions between particles in the hot inner region transfer energy to particles in the cooler outer region via a process called conduction. This, in turn, provides additional outward pressure that makes nearly all of the gas in the outer region flow away from the black hole. The model appears to explain well the extended shape of hot gas detected around Sgr A* in X-rays as well as features seen in other wavelengths.

The image also contains several mysterious X-ray filaments, some of which may be huge magnetic structures interacting with streams of energetic electrons produced by rapidly spinning neutron stars. Such features are known as pulsar wind nebulas.

The new model of Sgr A* was presented at the 215th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in January 2009 by Roman Shcherbakov and Robert Penna of Harvard University and Frederick K. Baganoff of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Source: NASA

What is Sagittarius A?

At the very heart of the Milky Way is a region known as Sagittarius A. This region is known the be the home of a supermassive black hole with millions of times the mass of our own Sun. And with the discovery of this object, astronomers have turned up evidence that there are supermassive black holes at the centers most most spiral and elliptical galaxies.

The best observations of Sagittarius A*, using Very Long Baseline Interferometry radio astronomy have determined that it’s approximately 44 million km across (that’s just the distance of Mercury to the Sun). Astronomers have estimated that it contains 4.31 million solar masses.

Of course, astronomers haven’t actually seen the supermassive black hole itself. Instead, they have observed the motion of stars in the vicinity of Sagittarius A*. After 10 years of observations, astronomers detected the motion of a star that came within 17 light-hours distance from the supermassive black hole; that’s only 3 times the distance from the Sun to Pluto. Only a compact object with the mass of millions of stars would be able to make a high mass object like a star move in that trajectory.

The discovery of a supermassive black hole at the heart of the Milky Way helped astronomers puzzle out a different mystery: quasars. These are objects that shine with the brightness of millions of stars. We now know that quasars come from the radiation generated by the disks of material surrounding actively feeding supermassive black holes. Our own black hole is quiet today, but it could have been active in the past, and might be active again in the future.

Some astronomers have suggested other objects that could have the same density and gravity to explain Sagittarius A, but anything would quickly collapse down into a supermassive black hole within the lifetime of the Milky Way.

We have written many articles about Sagittarius A. Here’s an article about how the Milky Way’s black hole is sending out flares, and even more conclusive evidence after 16 years of observations.

Here’s an article from NASA back in 1996 showing how astronomers already suspected it was a supermassive black hole, and the original ESO press release announcing the discovery.

We have recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about the Milky Way. Give it a listen: Episode: 99 – The Milky Way

Source: Wikipedia

Milky Way’s Black Hole Gave Off a Burst 300 Years Ago

Our Milky Way’s black hole is quiet – too quiet – some astronomers might say. But according to a team of Japanese astronomers, the supermassive black hole at the heart of our galaxy might be just as active as those in other galaxies, it’s just taking a little break. Their evidence? The echoes from a massive outburst that occurred 300 years ago.

The astronomers found evidence of the outburst using ESA’s XMM-Newton space telescope, as well as NASA and Japanese X-ray satellites. And it helps solve the mystery about why the Milky Way’s black hole is so quiet. Even though it contains 4 million times the mass of our Sun, it emits a fraction of the radiation coming from other galactic black holes.

“We have wondered why the Milky Way’s black hole appears to be a slumbering giant,” says team leader Tatsuya Inui of Kyoto University in Japan. “But now we realize that the black hole was far more active in the past. Perhaps it’s just resting after a major outburst.”

The team gathered their observations from 1994 to 2005. They watched how clouds of gas near the central black hole brightened and dimmed in X-ray light as pulses of radiation swept past. These are echoes, visible long after the black hole has gone quiet again.

One large gas cloud is known as Sagittarius B2, and it’s located 300 light-years away from the central black hole. In other words, radiation reflecting off of Sagittarius B2 must have come from the black hole 300 years previously.

By watching the region for more than 10 years, the astronomers were able to watch an event wash across the cloud. Approximately 300 years ago, the black hole unleashed a flare that made it a million times brighter than it is today.

It’s hard to explain how the black hole could vary in its radiation output so greatly. It’s possible that a supernova in the region plowed gas and dust into the vicinity of the black hole. This led to a temporary feeding frenzy that awoke the black hole and produced the great flare.

Original Source: ESA News Release