Our Milky Way galaxy is a sprawling collection of gas, dust, and hundreds of billions of stars, arrayed in a more-or-less flat disk. In the very center of the galaxy – just as in countless other large galaxies like ours – lies a hidden monster: a black hole. And not just any black hole, but one with four million times the Sun’s mass.
It’s called a supermassive black hole for a reason.
Usually, it’s not doing a whole lot except sitting there being black and holey. But sometimes it gets a little snack, and when it does it can let out a cosmic-sized belch. A very, very, very hot belch. Like it did in July 2012:
[Click to schwarzschildenate.]
These images were taken with NASA’s newest X-ray satellite, NuSTAR (more on that in a sec). NuSTAR can detect high-energy X-rays coming from space, and happened to be pointed toward the black hole when it erupted. On the left is an overview of the region near the center of our galaxy. The whitish area is the stuff immediately surrounding the black hole (the pink glow is most likely from a supernova, a star that exploded in centuries past). On the right is a series of three images showing that region getting very bright in X-rays, then fading away: a flare.
OK, so I know what you’re thinking. How can a black hole – famous for gobbling down everything nearby, even light – get bright and emit so much energy?
Basically, it doesn’t. The stuff around it does.
A black hole by itself is dark. But if a gas cloud gets near, very interesting things happen. The gravity from the black hole stretches out the cloud, because the part of the cloud nearer the hole gets pulled by the gravity harder than the part of the cloud farther away. Also, the cloud probably doesn’t just fall straight it; like an orbiting planet around the Sun it has some sideways motion. This means the hole whips it around, pulling out a long tendril which then spirals ever closer to the Point Of No Return.
This video may help. It shows a star getting torn apart by a black hole, but the principle is the same.
So some of the stuff may get flung away, but a lot of it falls toward the black hole. As it nears the hole, it forms a flat disk, called an accretion disk. The material in this disk is tortured by unbelievable forces: the inner part of the disk is whirling madly around the black hole, while the outer part is moving more slowly. The gas is literally heated up by friction as the different parts of the disk rub against each other (other forces like magnetism play a role too). The heating can be HUGE: the gas can reach temperatures of hundreds of millions of degrees!
Gas that hot emits X-rays, which is how this flare was seen by NuSTAR. Probably, a smallish cloud found itself too close to the black hole, got torn apart, and flew down into it. As it did it got extremely hot and blasted out X-rays. But when the whole thing was gobbled down, the X-rays stopped… because there was nothing left to emit them.
So maybe saying this was a belch is a bit misleading, since you do that after you eat something. This is more like your food screaming loudly and incoherently and flailing around while you’re actually eating it. Is that better?
This is a pretty cool observation. For one thing, our local big black hole is usually pretty quiet, so even getting a chance to see something like this is pretty nifty. Second, it can tell us what the environment is like near the black hole. And also, it helps us understand what happens right before some unfortunate object takes The Final Plunge. As I mentioned, every big galaxy has a supermassive black hole – ours is actually rather paltry compared to others; the one in the center of the Andromeda Galaxy is probably ten times more massive than ours – so anytime we can observe something going on with ours, we learn more about how they behave in other galaxies, too.
Also, I’m proud of NuSTAR. I worked on the project for a while, as part of the Education and Public Outreach team. I wrote quite a bit about the mission at the time, and was very pleased when it launched in June. It almost never got off the ground; the mission was actually canceled at one point, but was eventually reinstated.
I’m very glad it was! Now we can watch black holes in our galaxy (and others) as they eat and act rudely. Maybe it’s impolite to stare, but c’mon. When one puts on a fun show like this, it would be wrong not to.
- Astronomers see ANOTHER star ripped apart by a black hole! (including this original post and this followup)
- NuSTAR opens its X-ray eye
- The long reach of the Centaur’s dark heart
- Desktop Project Part 22: A black hole belches out a hurricane