Tag Archives: Sagittarius A*

Milky Way’s central black hole is getting active

The uncertainty of science: Sagittarius A* (pronounced A-Star), the Milky Way’s supermassive central black hole, has shown signs of increased activity in recent months.

The new study reveals that Sagittarius A* (Sgr A* for short) has been producing one bright X-ray flare about every ten days. However, within the past year, there has been a ten-fold increase in the rate of bright flares from Sgr A*, at about one every day. This increase happened soon after the close approach to Sgr A* by a mysterious object called G2.

“For several years, we’ve been tracking the X-ray emission from Sgr A*. This includes also the close passage of this dusty object” said Gabriele Ponti of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany. “A year or so ago, we thought it had absolutely no effect on Sgr A*, but our new data raise the possibility that that might not be the case.”

G2 was first thought to be a cloud that would be ripped apart as it passed close to Sgr A*, causing an outburst of activity. When it wasn’t ripped apart and there was no immediate increase in activity astronomers concluded that G2 was a star surrounded by dust which was generally unaffected by its close fly-by of the black hole.

The timing of this new activity now is puzzling. It comes much later than it should have if it was caused by G2, but astronomers don’t have any other explanation for it. It might be because of G2’s fly-by, or maybe the activity is just the natural variability of this poorly understand object. Either way it illustrates how little we really know about the behavior of giant black holes.

The race to map the space around the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy

The uncertainty of science: Using a new generation of telescopes, in space and on the ground, astronomers hope to better confine Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity by studying the distortion in light and energy produced by the powerful gravitational field surrounding Sagittarius A* (pronounced A-star), the 4 million solar mass black hole at the center of the Milky Way.

This is an excellent article explaining both the limits of our ability to study black holes as well as what we do know about Sagittarius A*.

Correction: Thanks to commenter Mike Nelson for noticing that I had mistakenly written “billion” instead of “million” for the mass of Sagittarius A* above.

G2 survives fly-by of Milky Way’s supermassive black hole

The uncertainty of science: The mysterious object G2, thought by astronomers to be either a cloud or a star, has survived its close fly-by of Sagittarius A* (pronounced A-star), the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, without telling scientists whether it is a cloud or a star.

Not only do astronomers still not know clearly what G2 is, the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole continues to behave in ways that baffle them.

It turns out that the object dubbed G2 that is zipping past the Milky Way’s central black hole is behaving not like a cloud but more like a star.

The uncertainty of science: It turns out that the object dubbed G2 that is zipping past the Milky Way’s central black hole is behaving not like a cloud but more like a star.

The latest observations by the Keck Observatory in Hawaii show that the gas cloud called “G2” was surprisingly still intact, even during its closest approach to the supermassive black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy. Astronomers from the UCLA Galactic Center Group reported today that observations obtained on March 19 and 20, 2014 show the object’s density was still “robust” enough to be detected. This means G2 is not just a gas cloud, but likely has a star inside.

When I wrote a piece about this object for Sky & Telescope I found that among astronomers there was great skepticism about it being just a gas cloud that would be ripped apart when it flew past the black hole. The early data was not conclusive, but enough of it suggested G2 was a star, not a cloud. It turns out here that the skeptics were right.

Part of the gas cloud being ripped apart by the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way have already swung past the black hole.

Part of a gas cloud, being ripped apart by the super massive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, has already swung past the black hole.

“The ionised gas at the head of the cloud is now stretched over more than 150 light-hours (about 160 billion kilometres) at the pericentre of the orbit around the black hole, with the closest approach being about 25 light-hours (or a bit more than 25 billion kilometres)”, explains Stefan Gillessen from MPE, who led the observing team. “The pericentre approach however is not a singular event but rather a process that will be stretching over a period of at least one year.”

The black hole, dubbed Sagittarius A* (pronounced A-star), is more than 4 billion times the mass of our Sun, but emits very little energy for its size. (Most super massive black holes emit energy as they swallow the mass around them.) Astronomers are hoping that they will see some action when it eats this cloud sometime next year.

The supermassive black hole in the center of the Milky Way is about to get a snack.

The supermassive black hole in the center of the Milky Way is about to get a snack.

Update: The recently launched NuStar telescope in July detected its first flare from the central black hole (which by the way is called Sagittarius A* and is pronounced Sagittarius A-star). If the gas cloud produces any fireworks as it whips past the black hole in the coming year then NuStar should see it.

Astronomers have discovered a star that circles the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way in only 11.5 years.

Dizzy: Astronomers have discovered a star that circles the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way in only 11.5 years.

This newly discovered star joins another that is 15 times brighter and has a 16 year orbit. The combined orbital data from both will allow astronomers to measure precisely the size of the black hole while also measuring the distortion of space caused by its intense gravitational field.

Astronomers watch as the supermassive black hole in the center of the Milky Way begins to eat a giant gas cloud.

Astronomers watch as the supermassive black hole in the center of the Milky Way begins to eat a giant gas cloud.

The real fireworks will occur next year, when the cloud passes only 25 billion miles from the black hole.