There is growing evidence that several million years ago the galactic center was the site of all manner of celestial
fireworks, according to assistant professors – Kelly Holley-Bockelmann at Vanderbilt and Tamara Bogdanovic' at Georgia
Institute of Technology.
The most dramatic of these extraordinary clues are the Fermi bubbles. These giant lobes of high-energy radiation –
caused by particles moving nearly the speed of light – extend some 30,000 light years above and below the Milky Way
In the March 6 issue of the Monthly
Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, the astronomers describe how a
single event – a violent collision and merger between the galactic black hole and an intermediate-sized black hole in
one of the small “satellite galaxies” that circle the Milky Way – could have produced the features that point to a more
violent past for the galactic core.
Click on image to enlarge
Artist's illustration of a satellite galaxy falling into the submassive black hole at the center of the
Milky Way galaxy. Credit: Julie Turner, Vanderbilt University
If they were glowing in visible light they would fill about half of the night sky. But they radiate X-ray
and gamma-ray light, so you need X-ray vision to see them. The discovery was reported by astronomers at the
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
Another puzzling characteristic of the GC, the astronomer’s abbreviation for the galactic center, is the fact that it
contains the three most massive clusters of young stars in the entire galaxy. The Central, Arches and Quintuplet
clusters each contain hundreds of young, hot stars that are much larger than the Sun.
These stars typically burn out in “only” a few million years because of their extreme brightness, so there had to
have been a relatively recent burst of star formation at the GC.
The supermassive black hole that dominates the center of the Milky Way weighs in at about four million solar masses
and is roughly 40 light seconds in diameter: only nine times the size of the sun. Such an object produces intense
So astronomers were surprised to discover a number of clumps of bright new stars closer than
three lights years from the black hole’s maw.
It wouldn’t be that surprising if the stars were being sucked into the black hole, but they show every sign of
having formed in place. For this to happen, the clouds of dust and gas that they formed from must have been
exceptionally dense: 10,000 times thicker than the other molecular clouds in the GC.
While there is an excess of young hot stars in the galactic core, there is also a surprising dearth of older stars.
Theoretical models predict that the density of old stars should increase as you move closer to the black hole. Instead,
there are very few old stars found within several light years of the sleeping giant.
Click on image to enlarge
From end to end, the newly discovered gamma-ray bubbles extend 50,000 light-years, or roughly half of the
Milky Way's diameter, as shown in this illustration. Hints of the bubbles' edges were first observed in X-rays
(blue) by ROSAT, a Germany-led mission operating in the 1990s. The gamma rays mapped by Fermi (magenta) extend
much farther from the galaxy's plane. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
With the assistance of Pau Amaro-Seoane from the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics
in Germany, Alberto Sesana from the Institut de Cičncies de l’Espai in Spain, and Vanderbilt Research Assistant
Professor Manodeep Sinha, Holley-Bockelmann and Vanderbilt graduate student Meagan Lang - came up with a theoretical
model that fits the observations and made some testable predictions.
The scenario began about 13 billion years ago, when the path of one of the smaller satellite galaxies orbiting the
Milky Way is diverted so that it began drifting inward toward the core. According to a recent study, this may have
happened dozens of times in the lifetime of the Milky Way.
As the satellite galaxy – a collection of stars and gas with an intermediate-sized black hole with a mass equal to
about 10,000 suns – spiraled in, most of its mass was gradually stripped away, finally leaving the black hole and a
handful of gravitationally bound stars.
Click on image to enlarge
X-ray view of the galactic center taken by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory.
The galactic black hole is located in Sagittarius A. (NASA/CXC/MIT/F.K. Baganoff et al.)
About 10 million years ago, the stripped down core of the satellite galaxy finally reached the galactic center.
When two black holes merge, they first go through an elaborate dance. So the smaller black hole would have circled
the galactic black hole for several million years before it was ultimately consumed.
As the smaller black hole circled closer and closer, it would have churned up the dust and gas in the vicinity and
pushed enough material into the galactic black hole in the process to produce the Fermi bubbles.
The violent gravitational tidesproduced by the process could easily have compressed the molecular clouds in the core
to the super densities required to produce the young stars that are now located on the central black hole’s doorstep.
In addition, the vigorous churning would have swept out the existing stars from the area surrounding the massive
central black hole. In fact, the astronomer’s model predicts that the black holes’ merger dance should have flung
a large number of the missing old stars out into the galaxy at hyper velocities, thus explaining the absence of
old stars immediately around the super-massive black hole.
“The gravitational pull of the satellite galaxy’s black hole could have carved nearly 1,000 stars out of the
galactic center,” said Bogdanovic'.
“Those stars should still be racing through space, about 10,000 light years away from their original orbits.”
Beautiful Night Sky Timelapse
Takes You On A Journey To Astronomer's Paradise
There are not many locations left on this planet where you can still experience a dark sky like this.
Walking on the desert near Paranal between the scattered stones and boulders on the pale red dust feels like being on Mars but under the Earth sky.
It is an amazing experience to be under an ideal night sky, a pure natural beauty unspoiled by urban lights.