The Monster of the Milky Way Comes to Life

Erupting X-ray flares every day, a ten-fold increase in bright flares from previous observations of Sagittarius A

h-817-sgra_3paneld
Astronomers believe the ten-fold increase in X-ray flares during the past year could be connected to the passage of a mysterious object designated G2 near the supermassive black hole (Image credit NASA and ESO

Space news (October 01, 2015) – 26,000 light-years from Earth, near the center of the Milky Way

NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory is part of a new breed of star hunting telescopes.
NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory is part of a new breed of star hunting telescopes.

Astrophysicists combining the telescopic talents of NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and Swift spacecraft, with the European Space Agency’s X-ray Space Observatory XMM-Newton, recently detected an increase in X-ray flares erupting from the supermassive black hole (Sagittarius A) at the center of the Milky Way.

NASA's Swift Gamma Ray Burst Explorer scans the universe looking for gamma ray bursts.
NASA’s Swift Gamma Ray Burst Explorer scans the universe looking for gamma ray bursts.

By analyzing data collected during extensive periods of monitoring by all three spacecraft, space scientists determined the Monster of the Milky Way – the supermassive black hole at the center with more than 4 million times the mass of Sol– has been more active during the past 15 years than first thought. 

An artists impression of the ESO's Newton XMM-Newton telescope.
An artists impression of the ESO’s Newton XMM-Newton telescope.

Erupting a bright X-ray flare every ten days, the Monster of the Milky Way has been eating hot gas falling into its gravity pool. Even more interesting, Sagittarius A during the past year has been erupting ten times as much, producing a bright X-ray flare every day. A discovery that has astrophysicists going over the data looking for a reason for the sudden increase. 

“For several years, we’ve been tracking the X-ray emission from Sgr A*. This includes also the close passage of this dusty object” said Gabriele Ponti of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany. “A year or so ago, we thought it had absolutely no effect on Sgr A*, but our new data raise the possibility that that might not be the case.”

The mystery started late in 2013, as G2 passed close to the supermassive black hole. At this time, there wasn’t any apparent change in G2 as it approached Sagittarius A, other than being slightly stretched by the gravity pool of the black hole.

Originally astronomers thought G2 was a stretched cloud of gas and dust, but this finding has led scientists to the possibility it could be a dense body embedded in a dusty cocoon. Currently, there’s no consensus among astronomers on the identity of this mysterious object. But the recent ten-fold increase in X-ray flares as G2 passed near the supermassive black hole suggests there could be a connection of some kind. 

“There isn’t universal agreement on what G2 is,” said Mark Morris of the University of California at Los Angeles. “However, the fact that Sgr A* became more active not long after G2 passed by suggests that the matter coming off of G2 might have caused an increase in the black hole’s feeding rate.”

At this point, astronomers don’t know if the increase in X-ray flares from the supermassive black hole is common or unusual in nature. These emissions could be part of the normal life cycle of supermassive black holes and totally unrelated to the passage of G2. The ten-fold increase in X-ray flares could also be due to changing solar winds from nearby massive stars feeding gas and dust into the black hole.

What’s next?

Scientists will keep observing Sagittarius A over the next little while to see what pops up next in this mystery. Hopefully, they can shed some light on the reason the Monster of the Milky Way, suddenly started emitting X-ray flares once a day.  

“It’s too soon to say for sure, but we will be keeping X-ray eyes on Sgr A* in the coming months,” said co-author Barbara De Marco, also of Max Planck. “Hopefully, new observations will tell us whether G2 is responsible for the changed behavior or if the new flaring is just part of how the black hole behaves.”

Read about plans of private firm Planetary Resources, Inc. to mine a near-Earth asteroid in the next decade or less.

Learn more about a magnetar astronomers believe is orbiting extremely close to the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, Sagittarius A.

Discover the Butterfly Nebula or Twin Jet Nebula.

You can learn more about NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory here.

Learn more about the discoveries made by NASA’s Swift spacecraft here.

Discover the European Space Agency’s X-ray Space Observatory XMM-Newton here.

Learn more about the Monster of the Milky Way: Sagittarius A here.

Discover NASA’s mission to the stars here.

Take part in the European Space Agency’s mission to the stars here.

Watch this Nova video on the Monster of the Milky Way.

Advertisements

The Greater the Mass, the Bigger the Pull

In the battle between celestial masses, greater mass means a bigger pull, and usually survival of the more massive body 

Space scientists looking a possible sources for a new x-ray source detected in globular cluster NGC 6388 are not on the trail of a cosmic mystery.
Space scientists looking a possible sources for a new x-ray source detected in globular cluster NGC 6388 are hot on the trail of a cosmic mystery.

Space news (April 28, 2015)

– A cosmic mystery unfolds 43,000 light years away in globular cluster NGC 6388

NASA space scientists studying the source of x-rays emanating from a globular cluster on the edge of the Milky Way are on the trail of a cosmic mystery.

Evidence seems to indicate x-rays were created as hot gas was drawn into the intermediate-mass black hole space scientists believe resides at the center of globular cluster NGC 6388.

Taking a closer look at data obtained using the European Space Agency’s INTErnational Gamma-Ray Laboratory (INTEGRAL), and NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and Swift Gamma-Ray Burst Explorer revealed the x-rays emanated from a location slightly off to one side of the center of NGC 6388.

Where does this cosmic mystery lead?

Space scientists looking at theoretical simulations and the data obtained observing the x-ray source for 200 days now believe x-rays were created as a planet, one-third the mass of Earth, was ripped apart as it came to close to a white dwarf star roughly the size of our planet.

In the movie
In the movie “When Worlds Collide”, the star Bellus is on a collision course with Earth.

How could a body the size of Earth pull apart a planet estimated to be one-third the mass?

A white dwarf star is the remnant of a medium-mass star, similar to our own Sun. In this case, space scientists estimate the white dwarf star was about 1.4 times the mass of our Sun, which means its surface gravity would be over 10,000 times stronger.

As a body thirty-three percent of the mass of Earth travels near a white dwarf star with a surface gravity of this magnitude, space scientists simulations indicate the difference in gravitational forces between the far and near side of the body creates gravitational tides that are greatly enhanced due to the nearness and magnitude of gravitational forces involved.

Space scientists indicate computer simulations suggest a planet would be first pulled away from its parent star due to the gravitational force created by the dense concentration of stars near the center of globular cluster NGC 6388.

If this planet were to pass near a white dwarf star with a mass close to the one in this news story, computer simulations indicate it could be torn apart by extreme tidal forces created as it passes.

The planetary debris created is then heated and glows in x-rays as it falls into the gravitational field of the white dwarf.

In this case, the observed amount of x-rays is as computer simulations indicate should be detected, so space scientists think they’re at least on the right trail. They’re now going over the data obtained and conducting new experiments to eliminate other possible x-ray sources.

For more information on NASA’s space mission visit here.

Learn more about the Chandra X-ray Observatory here.

Discover more about the mission of the European Space Agency’s INTErnational Gamma-Ray Laboratory (INTEGRAL) here.

For more information concerning the Swift Gamma-Ray Burst Explorer visit here.

Learn more about stars similar to our Sun.

Learn more about the possible evolution of life during the early universe.

Learn more about the human desire to travel to Mars.