Milky Way’s Supermassive Black Hole is Feasting on Asteroids

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For the past several years, the Chandra telescope has detected X-ray flares occurring about once a day from the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. These flares last a few hours with brightness ranging from a few times to nearly one hundred times that of the black hole’s regular output. What could be causing these unusual, mysterious flares? Scientists have determined that the black hole could be feasting hungrily on asteroids that come too close and vaporizing them, creating the flares. Basically, the black hole is eating asteroids and then belching out X-ray gas.

If confirmed, this result would mean that there is a huge, bustling cloud around the black hole containing hundreds of trillions of asteroids and comets.

“People have had doubts about whether asteroids could form at all in the harsh environment near a supermassive black hole,” said Kastytis Zubovas of the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom, and lead author of a new paper. “It’s exciting because our study suggests that a huge number of them are needed to produce these flares.”

The scientists say this really isn’t as far-fetched as it may sound, as it mirrors an event that regularly takes place in our Solar System: About every three days a comet is destroyed when it flies into the hot atmosphere of the Sun. Despite the significant differences in the two environments, the destruction rate of comets and asteroids by the Sun and the black hole at the center of our galaxy, called Sagittarius A*, or “Sgr A*” for short, may be similar.

These asteroids and comets have likely been ripped from their parent stars, and to create the flare the asteroids or comets have to be fairly large, at least 19 km (12 miles) wide.

The astronomers propose this scenario: An asteroid undergoes a close encounter with another object, such as a star or planet, and is thrown into an orbit headed towards Sgr A*. If the asteroid passes within about 100 million miles of the black hole, roughly the distance between the Earth and the Sun, it would be torn into pieces by the tidal forces from the black hole. These fragments then would be vaporized by friction as they pass through the hot, thin gas flowing onto Sgr A*, similar to a meteor heating up and glowing as it falls through Earth’s atmosphere. A flare is produced and the remains of the asteroid are swallowed eventually by the black hole.

“An asteroid’s orbit can change if it ventures too close to a star or planet near Sgr A*,” said co-author Sergei Nayakshin, also of the University of Leicester. “If it’s thrown toward the black hole, it’s doomed.”

The team says these results reasonably agree with models estimating of how many asteroids are likely to be in this region, assuming that the number around stars near Earth is similar to the number surrounding stars near the center of the Milky Way.

“As a reality check, we worked out that a few trillion asteroids should have been removed by the black hole over the 10-billion-year lifetime of the galaxy,” said co-author Sera Markoff of the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. “Only a small fraction of the total would have been consumed, so the supply of asteroids would hardly be depleted.”

This scenario would not be limited to asteroids and comets, however. Planets thrown into orbits too close to Sgr A* also could also be disrupted by tidal forces, although planets in the region are less common. And of course, if a planet was consumed, it would create an even larger flare; and this may have occurred about a century ago when Sgr A* brightened by about a factor of a million. Chandra and other X-ray missions have seen evidence of an X-ray “light echo” reflecting off nearby clouds, providing a measure of the brightness and timing of the flare.

“This would be a sudden end to the planet’s life, a much more dramatic fate than the planets in our solar system ever will experience,” Zubovas said.

Very long observations of Sgr A* will be made with Chandra later in 2012 that will give valuable new information about the frequency and brightness of flares and should help to test the model proposed here to explain them. The team said this work could improve understanding about the formation of asteroids and planets in the harsh environment of Sgr A*.

Paper: “Sgr A* flares: tidal disruption of asteroids and planets?”; K. Zubovas, S. Nayakshin, S. Markoff”

Sources: Chandra, RAS

First-Ever Image of a Black Hole to be Captured by Earth-Sized Scope

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“Sgr A* is the right object, VLBI is the right technique, and this decade is the right time.”

So states the mission page of the Event Horizon Telescope, an international endeavor that will combine the capabilities of over 50 radio telescopes across the globe to create a single Earth-sized telescope to image the enormous black hole at the center of our galaxy. For the first time, astronomers will “see” one of the most enigmatic objects in the Universe.

And tomorrow, January 18, researchers from around the world will convene in Tucson, AZ to discuss how to make this long-standing astronomical dream a reality.

During a conference organized by Dimitrios Psaltis, associate professor of astrophysics at the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory, and Dan Marrone, an assistant professor of astronomy at the Steward Observatory, astrophysicists, scientists and researchers will gather to coordinate the ultimate goal of the Event Horizon Telescope; that is, an image of Sgr A*’s accretion disk and the “shadow” of its event horizon.

“Nobody has ever taken a picture of a black hole. We are going to do just that.”

– Dimitrios Psaltis, associate professor of astrophysics at the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory

Sgr A* (pronounced as “Sagittarius A-star”) is a supermassive black hole residing at the center of the Milky Way. It is estimated to contain the equivalent mass of 4 million Suns, packed into an area smaller than the diameter of Mercury’s orbit.

Because of its proximity and estimated mass, Sgr A* presents the largest apparent event horizon size of any black hole candidate in the Universe. Still, its size in the sky is about the same as viewing “a grapefruit on the Moon.”

So what are astronomers expecting to actually “see”?

(Read more: What does a black hole look like?)

A black hole's "shadow", or event horizon. (NASA illustration)

Because black holes by definition are black – that is, invisible in all wavelengths of radiation due to the incredibly powerful gravitational effect on space-time around them – an image of the black hole itself will be impossible. But Sgr A*’s accretion disk should be visible to radio telescopes due to its billion-degree temperatures and powerful radio (as well as submillimeter, near infrared and X-ray) emissions… especially in the area leading up to and just at its event horizon. By imaging the glow of this super-hot disk astronomers hope to define Sgr A*’s Schwarzschild radius – its gravitational “point of no return”.

This is also commonly referred to as its shadow.

The position and existence of Sgr A* has been predicted by physics and inferred by the motions of stars around the galactic nucleus. And just last month a giant gas cloud was identified by researchers with the European Southern Observatory, traveling directly toward Sgr A*’s accretion disk. But, if the EHT project is successful, it will be the first time a black hole will be directly imaged in any shape or form.

“So far, we have indirect evidence that there is a black hole at the center of the Milky Way,” said Dimitrios Psaltis. “But once we see its shadow, there will be no doubt.”

(Read more: Take a trip into our galaxy’s core)

Submillimeter Telescope on Mt. Graham, AZ. (Used with permission from University of Arizona, T. W. Folkers, photographer.)

The ambitious Event Horizon Telescope project will use not just one telescope but rather a combination of over 50 radio telescopes around the world, including the Submillimeter Telescope on Mt. Graham in Arizona, telescopes on Mauna Kea in Hawaii and the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy in California, as well as several radio telescopes in Europe, a 10-meter dish at the South Pole and, if all goes well, the 50-radio-antenna capabilities of the new Atacama Large Millimeter Array in Chile. This coordinated group effort will, in effect, turn our entire planet into one enormous dish for collecting radio emissions.

By using long-term observations with Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) at short (230-450 GHz) wavelengths, the EHT team predicts that the goal of imaging a black hole will be achieved within the next decade.

“What is great about the one in the center of the Milky Way is that is big enough and close enough,” said assistant professor Dan Marrone. “There are bigger ones in other galaxies, and there are closer ones, but they’re smaller. Ours is just the right combination of size and distance.”

Read more about the Tucson conference on the University of Arizona’s news site here, and visit the Event Horizon Telescope project site here.

 

First Look at a Black Hole’s Feast


A true heart of darkness lies at the center of our galaxy: Sagittarius A* (pronounced “A-star”) is a supermassive black hole with the mass of four million suns packed into an area only as wide as the distance between Earth and the Sun. Itself invisible to direct observation, Sgr A* makes its presence known through its effect on nearby stars, sending them hurtling through space in complex orbits at speeds upwards of 600 miles a second. And it emits a dull but steady glow in x-ray radiation, the last cries of its most recent meals. Gas, dust, stars… solar systems… anything in Sgr A*’s vicinity will be drawn inexorably towards it, getting stretched, shredded and ultimately absorbed (for lack of a better term) by the dark behemoth, just adding to its mass and further strengthening its gravitational pull.

Now, for the first time, a team of researchers led by Reinhard Genzel from the Max-Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany will have a chance to watch a supermassive black hole’s repast take place.

Continue reading “First Look at a Black Hole’s Feast”

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