We are delighted to welcome a guest blog post from Zhiyuan Li, who led the work explained in our latest press release describing the best evidence yet for a jet from the supermassive black hole in our galaxy. Zhiyuan obtained his PhD at UMass/Amherst and did a postdoc at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. He went on to a Assistant Reseacher position at UCLA, where he worked with Prof. Mark Morris on the Sgr A* jet. He is currently a Professor of Astronomy at Nanjing University in China.
Today most astronomers believe that a supermassive black hole (SMBH), which weighs several million times more than the Sun, lurks at the very center of our Milky Way galaxy. The existence of such an entity was more just a speculation some 40 years back, when the two British astrophysicists, Donald Lynden-Bell and Martin Rees, first proposed the idea. Lynden-Bell and Rees suggested one particular observational test: "Very long baseline interferometry may soon be possible…to determine the size of any central black hole that there may be in our Galaxy" -- and they were right. There soon came the memorable discovery by Bruce Balick and Robert Brown, who in early 1974 used the Green Bank interferometer to find a compact radio source at the expected position. The source is now widely known as Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*) and accepted as the radio counterpart of the putative SMBH. (Most astronomers would use Sgr A* to denote the SMBH, and we do so below.)
New evidence has been uncovered for the presence of a jet of high-energy particles blasting out of the Milky Way's supermassive black hole. As outlined in the press release, astronomers have made the best case yet that such a jet exists by combining X-ray data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory with radio emission from the NSF's Very Large Array (VLA).
Researchers using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory have found evidence that the normally dim region very close to the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy flared up with at least two luminous outbursts in the past few hundred years.
This discovery comes from a new study of rapid variations in the X-ray emission from gas clouds surrounding the supermassive black hole, a.k.a. Sagittarius A*, or Sgr A* for short. The scientists show that the most probable interpretation of these variations is that they are caused by light echoes.
We are delighted to welcome Q. Daniel Wang as a guest blogger today. Daniel is the first author of a paper dissecting the X-ray-emitting gas around the center of our Galaxy, the subject of our latest press release. He is a professor in astronomy at University of Massachusetts Amherst. He was the Principal Investigator of the first large-scale Chandra and Hubble surveys of the Galactic center to explore various components of this exotic ecosystem. He recently enjoyed a four-month stay at University of Cambridge as a Beverley Sackler Distinguished Visiting astronomer, where much of the work reported in the paper was finished.
It has been known for a while that almost all massive galaxies contain a giant black hole at their centers. Most of such black holes, including the one at the center of our own Galaxy, are, however, far dimmer than quasars typically seen in the early universe. This dimness cannot simply be explained by decreasing amounts of material that the black holes could capture. Have the black holes lost their appetite? Or do they just swallow everything that is captured without much radiation? Many theories have been developed. But direct observational tests are hard to come by.
We are delighted to welcome Robin Barnard as a guest blogger today. Robin is currently a research fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; originally from the UK, he has greatly enjoyed living in the US for 3 years. He got his PhD at the University of Birmingham, and a MPhys (Hons) in Physics with Astrophysics from the University of Manchester; thanks to a quirky convention, he has considerably more letters after his name than in it! He was previously employed as a research fellow at the Open University.
I came to the USA to hunt black holes. Not nearby ones (that might be a bit scary), but ones in the nearby spiral galaxy known as the Andromeda Galaxy, or M31. As Grant & Naylor pointed out in the BBC TV series Red Dwarf: the thing about black holes, their main defining feature, is that they’re black; and the thing about space, the basic space color, is it’s black. This makes lone black holes very hard to see! However, black holes that are able to snatch material from an orbiting companion star can release huge amounts of energy, mostly as X-ray radiation. Such systems are called X-ray binaries (XBs), and neutron star plus normal star XBs are also possible (and indeed are more common). In our Galaxy, black hole binary systems with low-mass companions go unnoticed for long periods of time, occasionally exhibiting huge outbursts in X-rays; for this reason, they are known as X-ray transients. The similarity between known black hole X-ray transients and other low-mass X-ray transients suggests that most low-mass X-ray transients contain black holes.
Scientists have used Chandra to make a detailed study of an enormous cloud of hot gas enveloping two large, colliding galaxies. This unusually large reservoir of gas contains as much mass as 10 billion Suns, spans about 300,000 light years, and radiates at a temperature of more than 7 million degrees.
We are very pleased to welcome a guest blogger, Julie Hlavacek-Larrondo, who led the work described in our latest press release. Julie was raised in Montreal, Canada, and in 2007 completed a Bachelor’s degree in physics at the University of Montreal. Julie then obtained a Master’s degree in astrophysics. In 2012, she completed a PhD at the University of Cambridge. She is currently an Einstein Fellow at Stanford University.
It was during my Master degree at the University of Montreal that I realized just how fascinating black holes are.
I remember stumbling upon a press release from Chandra in 2007. The Chandra space telescope revealed an image of a jet, powered by a supermassive black hole, blasting through its neighboring galaxy. What's so fascinating? Supermassive black holes are tiny objects, about a billion times smaller than the galaxy it resides in, yet, it can create jets that extend well beyond the size of the galaxy! How can something so small be so powerful?
The black hole at the center of this galaxy is part of a survey of 18 of the biggest black holes in the universe. This large elliptical galaxy is in the center of the galaxy cluster PKS 0745-19, which is located about 1.3 billion light years from Earth. X-ray data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory are shown in purple and optical data from the Hubble Space Telescope are in yellow.
What does this image show? It looks very different from images that typically appear on our web-site, of galaxies and star clusters and exploded stars. It looks vaguely like a swarm of moths but with rectangular shapes that don't really look like wings. It might also pass for abstract art.
The answer is an astronomical one: this is a large mosaic showing Chandra observations from its archive centered on the Virgo Cluster. The rectangles are sets of charge-coupled devices (CCDs) on Chandra, showing X-ray emission from hot gas in the cluster's atmosphere, or around black holes. The rectangles often come in pairs because this is how a common configuration of Chandra CCDs appears on the sky: two square CCDs next to a set of three. The observations are scattered around because they targeted many different galaxies in and around Virgo.
Please note this is a moderated blog. No pornography, spam, profanity or discriminatory remarks are allowed. No personal attacks are allowed. Users should stay on topic to keep it relevant for the readers.
Read the privacy statement