And now, another anomaly has arisen from the heart of our very own Milky Way galaxy, where scientists say a supermassive black hole is emitting an “unprecedented” flash of brightness.
Astronomers identified Sagittarius A*, or Sgr A*—which resides 26,000 light years from Earth—as a powerful astronomical radio source early in the 20th century. And for the last half century or so, it has been considered as an almost certain candidate for hosting a supermassive black hole.
Thought to be a relatively low key black hole with an inactive nucleus, Sgr A* has been “highly variable” for years. However, the recent activity surprised scientists, whose measurements from the Keck II telescope show enormous bursts of infrared radiation that are up to 75 times brighter than usual.
The video in the tweet below shows a timelapse using images of Sgr A* taken over a period of 2.5 hours.
Here’s a timelapse of images over 2.5 hr from May from @keckobservatory of the supermassive black hole Sgr A*. The black hole is always variable, but this was the brightest we’ve seen in the infrared so far. It was probably even brighter before we started observing that night!
Astronomer Tuan Do of the University of California Los Angeles described his excitement at the new measurements:
“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. Over the next few frames, though, it was clear the source was variable and had to be the black hole. I knew almost right away there was probably something interesting going on with the black hole.”
In the study describing the findings—which will appear in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters—scientists say that the bursts of energy “push the limits” of the current “statistical models” of black hole activity. Explanations offered include the prospect of delayed reactions to gas clouds or nearby orbiting stars that shift the flow of gas into the black hole.
It remains to be seen whether this newly observed behavior opens the door to some of the more extreme theoretical black hole predictions, one of which argues that black holes could act as hyperspace portals to other galaxies. Another recent shocking thought experiment posited that our universe itself may be nested within a much larger high-dimensional black hole. One thing that’s fairly certain however, is that these powerful bursts of infrared radiation will be responsible for a revised conception of black hole activity.