Astronomers detect hot gas bubble swirling around the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole
22 September 2022
Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), astronomers have spotted signs of a ‘hot spot’ orbiting Sagittarius A*, the black hole at the centre of our galaxy. The finding helps us better understand the enigmatic and dynamic environment of our supermassive black hole.
“We think we're looking at a hot bubble of gas zipping around Sagittarius A* on an orbit similar in size to that of the planet Mercury, but making a full loop in just around 70 minutes. This requires a mind blowing velocity of about 30% of the speed of light!” says Maciek Wielgus of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, who led the study published today in Astronomy & Astrophysics.
The observations were made with ALMA in the Chilean Andes — a radio telescope co-owned by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) — during a campaign by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) Collaboration to image black holes. In April 2017 the EHT linked together eight existing radio telescopes worldwide, including ALMA, resulting in the recently released first ever image of Sagittarius A*. To calibrate the EHT data, Wielgus and his colleagues, who are members of the EHT Collaboration, used ALMA data recorded simultaneously with the EHT observations of Sagittarius A*. To the team's surprise, there were more clues to the nature of the black hole hidden in the ALMA-only measurements.
By chance, some of the observations were done shortly after a burst or flare of X-ray energy was emitted from the centre of our galaxy, which was spotted by NASA’s Chandra Space Telescope. These kinds of flares, previously observed with X-ray and infrared telescopes, are thought to be associated with so-called ‘hot spots’, hot gas bubbles that orbit very fast and close to the black hole.
“What is really new and interesting is that such flares were so far only clearly present in X-ray and infrared observations of Sagittarius A*. Here we see for the first time a very strong indication that orbiting hot spots are also present in radio observations,” says Wielgus, who is also affiliated with the Nicolaus Copernicus Astronomical Centre, Poland and the Black Hole Initiative at Harvard University, USA.
“Perhaps these hot spots detected at infrared wavelengths are a manifestation of the same physical phenomenon: as infrared-emitting hot spots cool down, they become visible at longer wavelengths, like the ones observed by ALMA and the EHT,” adds Jesse Vos, a PhD student at Radboud University, the Netherlands, who was also involved in this study.
The flares were long thought to originate from magnetic interactions in the very hot gas orbiting very close to Sagittarius A*, and the new findings support this idea. “Now we find strong evidence for a magnetic origin of these flares and our observations give us a clue about the geometry of the process. The new data are extremely helpful for building a theoretical interpretation of these events,” says co-author Monika Mościbrodzka from Radboud University.
ALMA allows astronomers to study polarised radio emission from Sagittarius A*, which can be used to unveil the black hole’s magnetic field. The team used these observations together with theoretical models to learn more about the formation of the hot spot and the environment it is embedded in, including the magnetic field around Sagittarius A*. Their research provides stronger constraints on the shape of this magnetic field than previous observations, helping astronomers uncover the nature of our black hole and its surroundings.
The observations confirm some of the previous discoveries made by the GRAVITY instrument at ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), which observes in the infrared. The data from GRAVITY and ALMA both suggest the flare originates in a clump of gas swirling around the black hole at about 30% of the speed of light in a clockwise direction in the sky, with the orbit of the hot spot being nearly face-on.
“In the future we should be able to track hot spots across frequencies using coordinated multiwavelength observations with both GRAVITY and ALMA — the success of such an endeavour would be a true milestone for our understanding of the physics of flares in the Galactic centre,” says Ivan Marti-Vidal of the University of València in Spain, co-author of the study.
The team is also hoping to be able to directly observe the orbiting gas clumps with the EHT, to probe ever closer to the black hole and learn more about it. “Hopefully, one day, we will be comfortable saying that we ‘know’ what is going on in Sagittarius A*,” Wielgus concludes.
This research was presented in the paper “Orbital motion near Sagittarius A* – Constraints from polarimetric ALMA observations” to appear in Astronomy & Astrophysics (https://www.aanda.org/10.1051/0004-6361/202244493).
The team is composed of M. Wielgus (Max-Planck-Institut für Radioastronomie, Germany [MPIfR]; Nicolaus Copernicus Astronomical Centre, Polish Academy of Sciences, Poland; Black Hole Initiative at Harvard University, USA [BHI]), M. Moscibrodzka (Department of Astrophysics, Radboud University, The Netherlands [Radboud]), J. Vos (Radboud), Z. Gelles (Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, USA and BHI), I. Martí-Vidal (Universitat de València, Spain), J. Farah (Las Cumbres Observatory, USA; University of California, Santa Barbara, USA), N. Marchili (Italian ALMA Regional Centre, INAF-Istituto di Radioastronomia, Italy and MPIfR), C. Goddi (Dipartimento di Fisica, Università degli Studi di Cagliari, Italy and Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil), and H. Messias (Joint ALMA Observatory, Chile).
The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of ESO, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) of Japan in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA is funded by ESO on behalf of its Member States, by NSF in cooperation with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) and by NINS in cooperation with the Academia Sinica (AS) in Taiwan and the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute (KASI). ALMA construction and operations are led by ESO on behalf of its Member States; by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), managed by Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI), on behalf of North America; and by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) on behalf of East Asia. The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA.
The European Southern Observatory (ESO) enables scientists worldwide to discover the secrets of the Universe for the benefit of all. We design, build and operate world-class observatories on the ground — which astronomers use to tackle exciting questions and spread the fascination of astronomy — and promote international collaboration in astronomy. Established as an intergovernmental organisation in 1962, today ESO is supported by 16 Member States (Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom), along with the host state of Chile and with Australia as a Strategic Partner. ESO’s headquarters and its visitor centre and planetarium, the ESO Supernova, are located close to Munich in Germany, while the Chilean Atacama Desert, a marvellous place with unique conditions to observe the sky, hosts our telescopes. ESO operates three observing sites: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope and its Very Large Telescope Interferometer, as well as two survey telescopes, VISTA working in the infrared and the visible-light VLT Survey Telescope. Also at Paranal ESO will host and operate the Cherenkov Telescope Array South, the world’s largest and most sensitive gamma-ray observatory. Together with international partners, ESO operates APEX and ALMA on Chajnantor, two facilities that observe the skies in the millimetre and submillimetre range. At Cerro Armazones, near Paranal, we are building “the world’s biggest eye on the sky” — ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope. From our offices in Santiago, Chile we support our operations in the country and engage with Chilean partners and society.
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