Milky Way’s supermassive black hole burps ‘mini-jets’, scientists find

The supermassive black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy periodically “burps” a “mini-jet” into space.

The Milky Way’s supermassive black hole, known as Sagittarius A * (Sgr A *), is more than 4 million times more massive than our sun. Its strong gravitational pull draws nearby stars and gas clouds toward its accretion disk. Some of this falling material is superheated and is ejected from the black hole in the form of narrow beams, also known as jets.

The remains of this “torch-like jet” date back several thousand years. However, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has not been able to explicitly photograph the plane. Instead, the space telescope observations reveal evidence suggesting that a bright hydrogen cloud near the black hole was hit by an explosive blast, according to a space agency statement.

Video: Milky Way’s supermassive black hole has a ‘torch-like’ jet
Related: Black Holes of the Universe (Images)

A mini-jet extends from the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. (Image credit: NASA / ESA / Gerald Cecil (UNC-Chapel Hill) / Joseph DePasquale (STScI))

This explosive burst is believed to be an outward-flowing stream of material occasionally spewing into space as material, such as nearby gas clouds, falls into the Milky Way’s central black hole. As the jet moves away from the black hole, it collides with the hydrogen cloud and interacts with the gas in a way that creates multiple streams of expanding bubbles that extend approximately 500 light-years into the galactic halo, according to the statement.

“The currents leak out of the dense gas disk of the Milky Way,” Alex Wagner, a co-author of the study and a researcher at the University of Tsukuba in Japan, said in the statement. “The jet diverges from a pencil ray into tendrils, like that of an octopus.”

Find an elusive jet

Previous research from 2013 using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Jansky Very Large Array Telescope in New Mexico revealed evidence of a jet from the south near the black hole, which was also shooting toward gas near the black hole. .

In this new study, using data from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and the ALMA Observatory (Atacama Large Millimeter / Submillimeter Array) in Chile, the researchers looked for traces of a northern counter-jet. While the ALMA observations showed a narrow linear feature extending 15 light years into the molecular gas cloud from the black hole, the Hubble infrared images capture a bubble of hot gas that swells and glows that extends at least 35 light years. light years from the black hole, aligning with the narrow jet.

By gathering evidence for the elusive jet, the researchers suggest that the black hole burps “mini-jets” every time it consumes something massive, such as a cloud of gas. In turn, the interaction between the jet and the surrounding hydrogen gas inflates the bubble. The researchers were able to recreate their findings using supercomputer models of simulated jet outlets, according to the statement.

An edge-on view of the Milky Way, with two huge plasma bubbles glowing above it. The inset image captures a bright hydrogen cloud near the black hole, which is hit by a narrow jet of material ejected from the black hole. (Image credit: NASA / ESA / Gerald Cecil (UNC-Chapel Hill) / Dani Player (STScI))

Fermi gamma ray bubbles

Hubble and other telescopes have found evidence to suggest that the Milky Way’s black hole had a burst about 2-4 million years ago that created a massive pair of bubbles shining over our galaxy, also known as Fermi gamma-ray bubbles. .

“Our central black hole clearly increased in luminosity at least 1 million times in the last million years,” Wagner said in the statement. “That was enough for a jet to hit the galactic halo.”

Similar evidence has been found in an active spiral galaxy, called NGC 1068, which is 47 million light-years away. This galaxy also has a series of bubble features lined up along an exit jet from its central black hole, according to the statement.

“An arc bubble at the top of the NGC 1068 outflow matches the scale of the start of the Fermi bubble in the Milky Way,” said Gerald Cecil, lead study author and researcher at the University of North Carolina. in Chapel Hill. in the statement. “NGC 1068 may be showing us what the Milky Way was doing during its great energy surge several million years ago.”

In the new study, the Hubble data was used to better understand the expansion rate and composition of Fermi gamma-ray bubbles in the Milky Way. Images from the Hubble telescope revealed that the Milky Way’s black hole burst was so powerful that it illuminated a gaseous structure, called the Magellanic Current, 200,000 light-years from the galactic center. The explosion was so powerful that gas still glows from that event today, according to the statement.

While the Milky Way’s central black hole is currently off, the residual “mini-jet” is close enough to quickly reignite if the black hole is turned on again, the researchers said in the statement.

“The black hole only needs to increase its luminosity a hundred times during that time to fill the channel of the jet with emitting particles,” Cecil said in the statement. “It would be great to see how far the jet goes in that burst. To get to the Fermi gamma ray bubbles, the jet would need to sustain itself for hundreds of thousands of years because those bubbles are each 50,000 light years across.” .

These findings appear in the December 6 issue of The Astrophysical Journal.

Follow Samantha Mathewson @ Sam_Ashley13. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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