Sunday, May 26, 2013

Black Hole at Center of the Milky Way is Found to be Cooking its Dinner

Astronomers working with the European Herschel Space Observatory have discovered really hot gas in the vicinity of the monster black hole at the center of our Galaxy. Over the years, many lines of evidence have shown us that there is a black hole with enough material to make 4 million Suns at the heart of the Milky Way. The new observations, made using infrared (or heat) rays, show that gases such as water vapor and carbon monoxide have been heated to about 1000 degrees Centigrade within a lightyear of the black hole.

While energy from nearby stars may also be heating this inner gas, the astronomers can't account for so much heat from stars alone. They think that great streamers of gas heading toward the black hole may be colliding and the shock waves from the collisions may be significant contributors to the heating. Some of the streamers of gas will someday be "eaten" by the black hole. In other words, like many a hungry diner, the black hole appears to be "cooking" its dinner in anticipation of eating it.

In fact, other observations have recently shown a cloud of gas weighing as much as several Earths, falling to its doom much closer to the black hole. This cloud may be consumed by the black hole as soon as the end of 2013. When such clouds actually spiral inward to their doom, they heat up a lot at the end. The last thing we observe from them before they fall into the black hole (and are no longer visible) is a "burp" of x-rays. Several x-ray telescopes in space are prepared to record such burps when they happen.

If you are cooking a barbecue this Memorial Day Weekend (a holiday in the U.S.), you can enjoy the idea that some serious cooking may also be going on at the center of our Galaxy. The center region is 26,000 lightyears away from us, so none of this poses the least danger to planet Earth and its cooks.

(By the way, to see one of the lines of evidence for the existence of the monster black hole, we recommend a great new movie made from observations by astronomer Andrea Ghez' group at UCLA. The movie shows the whirling orbits of stars very close to the black hole, being pulled around by the enormous gravity of the black hole. Check it out at:

Note that each second of the movie shows two years of star motion. It's enough to make you dizzy.)

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