Astronomers Spot Mysterious Flash From Our Galaxy's Supermassive Black Hole

13 Août, 2019, 04:52 | Auteur: Therese Cote

The supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, just produced an "unprecedented" bright flash-the cause of which is now unknown.

While it is normal for the supermassive black hole to fluctuate slightly in brightness, the researchers found Sagittarius A*-which is four million times the mass of the sun-had gotten 75 times brighter than normal.

Astronomers have learned a lot about the universe and our place in it thanks to high-powered telescopes, but there's clearly still a lot out there that we have yet to even imagine.

"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. While the black hole itself, by definition, does not emit light or detectable radiation, it is nonetheless surrounded by matter that may become excited by activity within the black hole, emitting electromagnetic waves detectable by Earth radio telescopes.

'I knew nearly right away there was probably something interesting going on with the black hole'. It's under constant observation with instruments like the WM Keck Observatory in Hawaii used by the UCLA team. The unusual brightening took place on May 13, and the team managed to capture it in a timelapse, two hours condensed down to a few seconds. Normally, the brightness of Sgr A* flickers a bit like a candle, varying from minutes to hours.

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S0-2 is the closest star to Sagittarius A*, orbiting the black hole about once every 16 years and traveling at around three percent of the speed of light. But no one was aware that anything was drawing close enough to be swallowed by the black hole. If it was a gas cloud, this proximity should have torn it to shreds, and parts of it devoured by the black hole - yet nothing happened. There is a possibility this is a delayed reaction to that event.

But - have a look at the timelapse again. As technology continues to advance, and we gain the ability to peer deeper and deeper into the cosmos, new discoveries surely await, and Holm 15A's black hole may not be the record holder for long. It made its closest approach yet past year, coming within 17 light hours of the event horizon. Another working theory is the flash was caused by G2, a gas cloud which also recently passed close (36 light-hours) to the black hole in 2014.

The only way to find out is having more data. "Additional multi-wavelength observations will be necessary to both monitor Sagittarius A* for potential state changes and to constrain the physical processes responsible for its current variability".

Luckily, there are plenty of sources for extra data to help fathom the cause of the change.

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