Astronomers Spot Unprecedented Flashes From Our Galaxy's Black Hole

13 August, 2019, 15:12 | Author: Darnell Taylor

Nearly 26,000 light years from Earth, Sagittarius A* - or Sgr A* - is typically fairly restrained as supermassive black holes go, but this past summer that has all been flipped.

The supermassive black hole Sagittarius A* located in the middle of the Milky Way.

At the heart of our home galaxy is a supermassive black hole that gobbles up anything that gets too close.

The sudden blast of brightness caused the black hole to grow 75 times brighter than usual levels, before returning to normal according to the scientists.

"The black hole was so bright I at first mistook it for the star S0-2, because I had never seen Sgr A* that bright", astronomer Tuan Do from the University of California Los Angeles told ScienceAlert about the observations. Currently, we do not possess the technology necessary to detect radiation emitted directly by black holes, but we can observe the effects its gravitational force has on the surrounding objects, causing enormous friction, which produces radiation.

A group of scientists, who have been studying the space giant for 20 years, have just revealed findings that show that back in May, Sagittarius A* was the brightest we've ever seen. It's under constant observation with instruments like the WM Keck Observatory in Hawaii used by the UCLA team. It's thought to be at least twice as large as the previous largest black hole detected by scientists.

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The team is busily gathering data to try and narrow it down, but there are two immediate possibilities. In fact, researchers believe the black hole in Holm 15A is at least 10,000 times as massive as our home galaxy's black hole. That's the mass of materials - including gases and dusts - that are drawn to the black hole but don't make it past the event horizon.

But - have a look at the timelapse again. That's S0-2, a star on a long, looping, 16-year elliptical orbit around Sgr A*. They said the increase in brightness could suggest a change in activity at the supermassive black hole. Last year, it made its closest approach, coming within 17 light-hours of the black hole.

Researchers say, though the event much brighter than any other observed in human history, it may have been even brighter than the data lets on since its peak brightness was captured at the start of the telescope's imaging.

'One of the possibilities is that the star S0-2, when it passed close to the black hole past year, changed the way gas flows into the black hole, and so more gas is falling on it, leading it to become more variable, ' Do told ScienceAlert. They are now being collected, across a larger range of wavelengths. Another team of astronomers operating the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope have also measured the light-stretching effects of the black hole (they call the star S2, but it's the same star).

The paper has been accepted into The Astrophysical Journal Letters, and is available on arXiv.


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