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 (VLBI) 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.
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 Wayâ€™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 itâ€™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.