Tag Archives: Sagittarius A*

Strange things at center of Milky Way

Astronomers have discovered an additional four more weird objects orbiting the supermassive black hole, dubbed Sagittarius A* (pronounced A-star) for a total of six, all of which display behavior that is inexplicable.

Part of a new class called G objects, they look compact most of the time and stretch out when their orbits bring them closest to the black hole. Those orbits range from about 100 to 1000 years. “These objects look like gas and behave like stars,” says Andrea Ghez, director of the Galactic Centre Group at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and co-author of a paper in the journal Nature.

The new discoveries are known simply as G3 to G6. G1 was discovered by Ghez’s research group back in 2005, and G2 by astronomers in Germany in 2012. “The fact that there are now several of these objects observed near the black hole means that they are, most likely, part of a common population,” says co-author Randy Campbell, from the Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

It is not surprising that the intense gravitational field of Sagittarius A* rips these objects into elongated stretched objects as their orbits bring them close to the black hole. What is very very puzzling is their apparent ability to spring back to compact form as their orbits take them away from the black hole.


Is the pole of the Milky Way’s central black hole pointing directly at us?

The uncertainty of science: New data obtained using a constellation of Earth-based telescopes, working as a unit, strongly suggests that the pole of the Milky Way7s supermassive central black hole, dubbed Sagittarius A* (pronounced A-star), is pointing directly at us.

The high quality of the unscattered image has allowed the team to constrain theoretical models for the gas around Sgr A*. The bulk of the radio emission is coming from a mere 300 milllionth of a degree, and the source has a symmetrical morphology. “This may indicate that the radio emission is produced in a disk of infalling gas rather than by a radio jet,” explains Sara Issaoun, graduate student at the Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, who leads the work and has tested several computer models against the data. “However, that would make Sgr A* an exception compared to other radio emitting black holes. The alternative could be that the radio jet is pointing almost at us”.

The German astronomer Heino Falcke, Professor of Radio Astronomy at Radboud University and PhD supervisor of Issaoun, calls this statement very unusual, but he also no longer rules it out. Last year, Falcke would have considered this a contrived model, but recently the GRAVITY team came to a similar conclusion using ESO’s Very Large Telescope Interferometer of optical telescopes and an independent technique. “Maybe this is true after all”, concludes Falcke, “and we are looking at this beast from a very special vantage point.”

If this is true, it might explain why Sgr A* is generally observed to be one of the quietest central supermassive black holes known. Compared to many others, its flux of emissions is far less.


Astronomers find evidence for thousands of black holes near galaxy center

The uncertainty of science: Using data from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, astronomers have found evidence suggesting that thousands of stellar-mass black holes might exist circling Sagittarius A* (pronounced A-star), the super-massive black hole at the center of the Milky Way.

Essentially, they found a dozen likely black hole candidates in what they think are X-ray binaries system. From this they extrapolate the number of potential stellar-massed black holes at the center of the galaxy. However,

While the authors strongly favor the black hole explanation, they cannot rule out the possibility that up to about half of the observed dozen sources are from a population of millisecond pulsars, i.e., very rapidly rotating neutron stars with strong magnetic fields.

In other words, this conclusion is very uncertain. Nonetheless, even if half of their candidates are not stellar-mass black holes, the results do suggest that there are a very large number of black holes circling Sagittarius A*. Using this information astronomers will be able to better refine their theories on the formation process for such super-massive black holes.


Baby stars at center of galaxy

New observations of the region surrounding Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*), the super-massive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, has confirmed earlier research by finding what appears to be eleven newly formed baby stars.

Prior observations of the region surrounding Sgr A* by Zadeh and his team had revealed multiple massive infant stars but the finding was not conclusive. These objects, known as proplyds, are common features in more placid star-forming regions, like the Orion Nebula. The new measurements provide more conclusive evidence for young star formation activity. Though the galactic center is a challenging environment for star formation, it is possible for particularly dense cores of hydrogen gas to cross the necessary threshold and forge new stars.

The new ALMA observations, however, revealed something even more remarkable, signs that 11 low-mass protostars are forming within one parsec – a scant three light-years – of the galaxy’s central black hole. Zadeh and his team used ALMA to confirm that the masses and momentum transfer rates – the ability of the protostar jets to plow through surrounding interstellar material – are consistent with young protostars found throughout the disk of our galaxy. “This discovery provides evidence that star formation is taking place within clouds surprisingly close to Sagittarius A*,” said Al Wootten with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Virginia, and co-author on the paper.

They have several theories on how new stars could coalesce in such a violent and turbulent region, but none appears that convincing. Essentially, this is a mystery that does not yet have an answer. It does tell us however that star formation can occur almost anywhere.


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.