A Mysterious Blob Near the Milky Way’s Supermassive Black Hole Might Finally Have an Explanation

Orbits of stars near Sagittarius A*. Credit: ESO/M. Parsa/L. Calçada

At the center of the Milky Way, there is a massive persistent radio source known as Sagittarius A*. Since the 1970s, astronomers have known that this source is a supermassive black hole (SMBH) roughly 4 million times the mass of our Sun. Thanks to advancements in optics, spectrometers, and interferometry, astronomers have been able to peer into Galactic Center. In addition, thanks to the international consortium known as the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), the world got to see the first image of Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*) in May 2022.

These efforts have allowed astronomers and astrophysicists to characterize the environment at the center of our galaxy and see how the laws of physics work under the most extreme conditions. For instance, scientists have been observing a mysterious elongated object around the Sgr A* (named X7) and wondered what it was. In a new study based on two decades’ worth of data, an international team of astronomers with the UCLA Galactic Center Group (GCG) and the Keck Observatory have proposed that it could be a debris cloud created by a stellar collision.

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Dust is Hiding how Powerful Quasars Really are

An artist’s impression of what the dust around a quasar might look like from a light year away. Credit Peter Z. Harrington

In the 1970s, astronomers discovered that the persistent radio source at the center of our galaxy was a supermassive black hole (SMBH). Today, this gravitational behemoth is known as Sagittarius A* and has a mass roughly 4 million times that of the Sun. Since then, surveys have shown that SMBHs reside at the center of most massive galaxies and play a vital role in star formation and galactic evolution. In addition, the way these black holes consume gas and dust causes their respective galaxies to emit a tremendous amount of radiation from their Galactic Centers.

These are what astronomers refer to as Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN), or quasars, which can become so bright that they temporarily outshine all the stars in their disks. In fact, AGNs are the most powerful compact steady sources of energy in the Universe, which is why astronomers are always trying to get a closer look at them. For instance, a new study led by the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) indicates that scientists have substantially underestimated the amount of energy emitted by AGN by not recognizing the extent to which their light is dimmed by dust.

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Did Supermassive Black Holes Collapse Directly out of Giant Clouds of gas? It Could Depend on Magnetic Fields

This artist’s impression shows a possible seed for the formation of a supermassive black hole. Credit: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss

Roughly half a century ago, astronomers realized that the powerful radio source coming from the center of our galaxy (Sagittarius A*) was a “monster” black hole. Since then, they have found that supermassive black holes (SMBHs) reside at the center of most massive galaxies. This leads to what is known as Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN) or quasars, where the central region of a galaxy is so energetic that it outshines all of the stars in its galactic disk. In all that time, astronomers have puzzled over how these behemoths (which play a crucial role in galactic evolution) originated.

Astronomers suspect that the seeds that formed SMBHs were created from giant clouds of dust that collapsed without first becoming stars – aka. Direct Collapse Black Holes (DCBHs). However, the role of magnetic fields in the formation of DCBHs has remained unclear since none of the previous studies have been able to simulate the full accretion periods. To investigate this, an international team of astronomers ran a series of 3D cosmological magneto-hydrodynamic (MHD) simulations that accounted for DCBH formation and showed that magnetic fields grow with the accretion disks and stabilize them over time.

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Supermassive Black Holes Could Have Formed Directly in the Early Universe

There are a lot of amazing things in our Universe and a black hole is one of the most unknown. We don’t know for certain what happens inside a black hole and even the formation of supermassive black holes in the early universe is still being worked out. A group of physicists at Brookhaven National Laboratory have tackled this question and have come up with a possible solution to the mystery. The nature of dark matter may be resolved by their theory as well.

“The yet unanswered question of the nature of Dark Matter, and how primordial supermassive Black Holes could grow so fast in such a short amount of time are two pressing open questions in physics and astrophysics. Finding a common explanation for these observations is desirable and could provide us with insights into the inner workings of the Universe.”

Julia Gehrlein – Physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory

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Best Image Ever Taken of Stars Buzzing Around the Milky Way’s Supermassive Black Hole

This visible light wide-field view shows the rich star clouds in the constellation of Sagittarius (the Archer) in the direction of the centre of our Milky Way galaxy. The entire image is filled with vast numbers of stars — but far more remain hidden behind clouds of dust and are only revealed in infrared images. This view was created from photographs in red and blue light and forming part of the Digitized Sky Survey 2. The field of view is approximately 3.5 degrees x 3.6 degrees.

It all began with the discovery of Sagittarius A*, a persistent radio source located at the Galactic Center of the Milky Way that turned out to be a supermassive black hole (SMBH). This discovery was accompanied by the realization that SMBHs exist at the heart of most galaxies, which account for their energetic nature and the hypervelocity jets extending from their center. Since then, scientists have been trying to get a better look at Sag A* and its surroundings to learn more about the role SMBHs play in the formation and evolution of our galaxy.

This has been the goal of the GRAVITY collaboration, an international team of astronomers and astrophysicists that have been studying the core of the Milky Way for the past thirty years. Using the ESO’s Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI), this team obtained the deepest and sharpest images to date of the region around Sag A*. These observations led to the most precise measurement yet of the black hole’s mass and revealed a never-before-seen star that orbits close to it.

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A Nearby Dwarf Galaxy has a Surprisingly Massive Black Hole in its Heart

Since the 1970s, scientists have known that within the cores of most massive galaxies in the Universe, there beats the heart of a Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH). The presence of these giant black holes causes these galaxies to be particularly energetic, to the point where their central regions outshine all the stars in their disks combined – aka. Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN). The Milky Way galaxy has its own SMBH, known as Sagittarius A*, which has a mass of over 4 million Suns.

For decades, scientists have studied these objects in the hopes of learning more about their role in galactic formation and evolution. However, current research has shown that SMBHs may not be restricted to massive galaxies. In fact, a team of astronomers from the University of Texas at Austin’s McDonald Observatory recently discovered a massive black hole at the heart of a dwarf galaxy that orbits the Milky Way (Leo I). This finding could redefine our understanding of how black holes and galaxies evolve together.

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This is How a Supermassive Black Hole Feeds

Artist's impression of a quasar and a relativistic jet emanating from the center. Credit: NASA

At the heart of most massive galaxies in our Universe, there are supermassive black holes (SMBH) on the order of millions to billions of times the mass of the Sun. As these behemoths consume gas and dust that’s slowly fed into their maws, they release tremendous amounts of energy. This leads to what is known as an Active Galactic Nucleus (AGN) – aka. a quasar – which can sometimes send hypervelocity jets of material for light-years.

Since they were first discovered, astrophysicists have suspected that SMBHs play an important role in the formation and evolution of galaxies. However, as a result, there has also been considerable research dedicated to how these massive objects form and evolve themselves. Recently, a team of astrophysicists conducted a high-powered simulation that showed exactly how SMBHs feed and determined that a galaxy’s arms play a vital role.

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A Black Hole Emitted a Flare Away From us, but its Intense Gravity Redirected the Blast Back in our Direction

Artist's impression of a black hole, as indicated by its bright accretion disk. Credit: NASA

In 1916, Albert Einstein put the finishing touches on his Theory of General Relativity, a journey that began in 1905 with his attempts to reconcile Newton’s own theories of gravitation with the laws of electromagnetism. Once complete, Einstein’s theory provided a unified description of gravity as a geometric property of the cosmos, where massive objects alter the curvature of spacetime, affecting everything around them.

What’s more, Einstein’s field equations predicted the existence of black holes, objects so massive that even light cannot escape their surfaces. GR also predicts that black holes will bend light in their vicinity, an effect that can be used by astronomers to observe more distant objects. Relying on this technique, an international team of scientists made an unprecedented feat by observing light caused by an X-ray flare that took place behind a black hole.

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The Event Horizon Telescope Zooms in on Another Supermassive Black Hole

Credit: M. Janssen, H. Falcke, M. Kadler, E. Ros, M. Wielgus et al.

On April 10th, 2019, the world was treated to the first image of a black hole, courtesy of the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). Specifically, the image was of the Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH) at the center of the supergiant elliptical galaxy known as M87 (aka. Virgo A). These powerful forces of nature are found at the centers of most massive galaxies, which include the Milky Way (where the SMBH known as Sagittarius A* is located).

Using a technique known as Very-Long-Baseline Interferometry (VLBI), this image signaled the birth of a new era for astronomers, where they can finally conduct detailed studies of these powerful forces of nature. Thanks to research performed by the EHT Collaboration team during a six-hour observation period in 2017, astronomers are now being treated to images of the core region of Centaurus A and the radio jet emanating from it.

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New Mosaic Shows the Galactic Core From Opposite Sides of the Electromagnetic Spectrum

Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/UMass/Q.D. Wang; Radio: NRF/SARAO/MeerKAT)

The core of the Milky Way Galaxy (aka. Galactic Center), the region around which the rest of the galaxy revolves, is a strange and mysterious place. It is here that the Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH) that powers the compact radio source known as Sagittarius A* is located. It is also the most compact region in the galaxy, with an estimated 10 million stars within 3.26 light-years of the Galactic Center.

Using data from Chandra X-ray Observatory and the MeerKAT radio telescope, NASA and the National Research Foundation (NSF) of South Africa created a mosaic of the center of the Milky Way. Combining images taken in the x-ray and radio wavelengths, the resulting panoramic image manages to capture the filaments of super-heated gas and magnetic fields that (when visualized) shows the complex web of energy at the center of our galaxy.

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