Star-engulfing burp from our Milky Way’s black hole detected by astronomers

Astronomers have found evidence of this activity in the supermassive black hole at the heart of the Milky Way.

The black hole, which is 4 million times the mass of our sun, has the remnants of a torch-like jet of material from an explosion that occurred several thousand years ago.

As black holes use their gravitational pull to pull matter inward, interstellar gas and dust swirl in what’s called an accretion disk around the black hole. This rapidly rotating material heats up and moves away from the black hole in jets that soar through space at close to the speed of light, accompanied by radiation.

Although our galaxy’s black hole is often silent, it sometimes releases activity, like cosmic burps and hiccups, as it engulfs stars and clouds of gas.

Astronomers have used data from multiple telescopes to piece together this astronomical explosion from the past and find that the material blown out of the jet is still making its mark. A study detailing the results published last week in the Astrophysical Journal.

In 2013, researchers detected x-rays and radio waves using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory in space and the Jansky Very Large Array Telescope in New Mexico, suggesting that a jet gas was entering near the black hole.

This made Gerald Cecil, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to wonder if there could be another jet radiating from the black hole in another direction.

Data from terrestrial and space telescopes, including the Hubble Space Telescope, on multiple wavelengths of light essentially allowed Cecil to see an otherwise invisible, glowing hot gas bubble that lined up about 35 light years away. from the black hole, as well as an expanding node of gas that is only 15 light years away.

When the jets strike clouds of gas in the galaxy, the clouds react to the heat by expanding. The materials contained in the gas clouds cause the jet to bend and divide into streams.

“The fluxes escape from the dense gas disk of the Milky Way,” Alex Wagner, study co-author and assistant professor at the University of Tsukuba in Japan, said in a statement. “The jet diverges from a pencil beam in tendrils, like that of an octopus.”

These flows led to a chain of expanding gas bubbles that stretch for at least 500 light years, a garland that has allowed researchers to piece together past events.

“Like in archeology, you dig and burrow to find increasingly ancient artifacts until you stumble upon the remains of a great civilization,” Cecil said.

When Wagner and Cecil ran computer models of the Milky Way’s jets, they were able to replicate the data from the telescopes.

The black hole at the center of our galaxy is “currently extinct,” Cecil said. But if it becomes active again, the jet will likely turn back on as well, and astronomers could observe how far the jet can reach, he said.

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