Milky Way’s Supermassive Black Hole Still Smoldering Long After Powerful “Death-Ray” Beam Outburst

This is a composite view of X-rays, molecular gas, and warm ionized gas near the galactic center. The orange-colored features are of glowing hydrogen gas. One such feature, at the top tip of the jet (see the annotated image below) is interpreted as a hydrogen cloud that has been hit by the outflowing jet. The jet scatters off the cloud into tendrils that flow northward. Farther down near the black hole are X-ray observations of superheated gas colored blue and molecular gas in green. These data are evidence that the black hole occasionally accretes stars or gas clouds, and ejects some of the superheated material along its spin axis. Credit: NASA, ESA, and Gerald Cecil (UNC-Chapel Hill); Image Processing: Joseph DePasquale (STScI)

Hubble Finds a Smoldering Remnant in a Blast From the Past

In some science fiction movies there is a sleeping monster, like Godzilla, who suddenly awakens and goes on a rampage. Our Milky Way galaxy was once thought to have a sleeping monster at its core, a black hole weighing 4 million times our Sun’s mass. But there is increasing evidence the black hole occasionally awakens to devour a hapless star or gas cloud that falls into it. The black hole then burps out powerful “death-ray” beams of radiation and particles traveling at nearly the speed of light. The biggest outburst on record was 2 million years ago. This is evident in expanding plumes of plasma that form an hourglass shape, extending far above and below the plane of our galaxy. Bipolar shock waves from the black hole outburst heated the gas outside the galactic plane to glow in gamma-rays and X-rays.

Hubble has found circumstantial evidence that the black hole is still smoldering long after the earlier outburst. Hubble astronomers’ evidence is like doing an archeological dig to try and peer through the interstellar pollution of dense sheets of dust and gas between Earth and the galactic center, 27,000 light-years away. Hubble photographed a bright knot of gas that has been impacted by an invisible jet from the black hole, that is merely 15 light-years from it. The black hole must have shown brilliantly billions of years ago as a quasar (quasi-stellar object), when our young galaxy was feeding on lots of infalling gas. But after all this time the black hole still goes through fits and starts, and is not ready for napping as long as there is a snack around.

Mini-Jet Found Near Milky Way’s Supermassive Black Hole

Our Milky Way’s central black hole has a leak. This supermassive black hole looks like it still has the vestiges of a blowtorch-like jet dating back several thousand years. NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope hasn’t photographed the phantom jet but has helped find circumstantial evidence that it is still pushing feebly into a huge hydrogen cloud and then splattering, like the narrow stream from a hose aimed into a pile of sand.

This is further evidence that the black hole, with a mass of 4.1 million Suns, is not a sleeping monster but periodically hiccups as stars and gas clouds fall into it. Black holes draw some material into a swirling, orbiting accretion disk where some of the infalling material is swept up into outflowing jets that are collimated by the black hole’s powerful magnetic fields. The narrow “searchlight beams” are accompanied by a flood of deadly ionizing radiation.

“The central black hole is dynamically variable and is currently powered down,” said Gerald Cecil of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Cecil pieced together, like a jigsaw puzzle, multiwavelength observations from a variety of telescopes that suggest the black hole burps out mini-jets every time it swallows something hefty, like a gas cloud. His multinational team’s research has just been published in the Astrophysical Journal.

In this annotated composite image, yellow represents Hubble data, blue is Chandra data, green is Alma data, and red is VLA data. The graphic of a translucent, vertical white fan is added to show the suggested axis of a mini-jet from the supermassive black hole at the galaxy’s heart. Credit: NASA, ESA, and Gerald Cecil (UNC-Chapel Hill); Image Processing: Joseph DePasquale (STScI)

In 2013 evidence for a stubby southern jet near the black hole came from X-rays detected by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and radio waves detected by the Jansky Very Large Array telescope in Socorro, New Mexico. This jet too appears to be plowing into gas near the black hole.

Cecil was curious if there was a northern counter-jet as well. He first looked at archival spectra of such molecules as methyl alcohol and carbon monosulfide from the ALMA Observatory in Chile (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array), which uses millimeter wavelengths to peer through the veils of dust between us and the galactic core. ALMA reveals an expanding, narrow linear feature in molecular gas that can be traced for 15 light-years back towards the black hole.

By connecting the dots, Cecil next found in Hubble infrared-wavelength images a glowing, inflating bubble of hot gas that aligns to the jet at a distance of at least 35 light-years from the black hole. His team suggests that the black hole jet has plowed into it, inflating the bubble. These two residual effects of the fading jet are the only visual evidence of it impacting molecular gas.

This schematic is based on multiwavelength observations of a suspected jet from the massive black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy. The wide view shows our galaxy edge-on, with two huge bubbles of plasma glowing in gamma-rays and X-rays. These are evidence for an explosive outburst from the black hole about 2 million years ago. Probing deep into the galaxy’s core (inset), astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have captured a glowing cloud of hydrogen near the black hole. The interpretation is that the cloud is being hit by a narrow, columnated jet of material that was blasted out of the black hole merely 2,000 years ago. The black hole is still active, but on a smaller scale of energy output than previously known outbursts. When the jet slams into the hydrogen knot the outflow scatters into octopus-like tendrils that continue along a trajectory out of our galaxy. Credit: NASA, ESA, Gerald Cecil (UNC-Chapel Hill), and Dani Player (STScI)

As it blows through the gas the jet hits material and bends along multiple streams. “The streams percolate out of the Milky Way’s dense gas disk,” said co-author Alex Wagner of Tsukuba University in Japan. “The jet diverges from a pencil beam into tendrils, like that of an octopus.” This outflow creates a series of expanding bubbles that extend out to at least 500 light-years. This larger “soap bubble” structure has been mapped at various wavelengths by other telescopes.

Wagner and Cecil next ran supercomputer models of jet outflows in a simulated Milky Way disk, which reproduced the observations. “Like in archeology, you dig and dig to find older and older artifacts until you come upon remnants of a grand civilization,” said Cecil. Wagner’s conclusion: “Our central black hole clearly surged in luminosity at least 1 millionfold in the last million years. That sufficed for a jet to punch into the Galactic halo.”

Previous observations by Hubble and other telescopes found evidence that the Milky Way’s black hole had an outburst about 2-4 million years ago. That was energetic enough to create an immense pair of bubbles towering above our galaxy that glow in gamma-rays. They were first discovered by NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope in 2010 and are surrounded by X-ray bubbles that were discovered in 2003 by the ROSAT satellite and mapped fully in 2020 by the eROSITA satellite.

The nearby barred-spiral galaxy NGC 1068 serves as a proxy for helping astronomers understand the fireworks taking place at the center of our Milky Way galaxy, driven by eruptions from a supermassive black hole. Because we live inside the Milky Way, much of our view of the galaxy’s center is blocked by intervening clouds of gas and dust. But, looking 45 million light-years away at NGC 1068 gives astronomers a birds-eye view of similar black hole outbursts. The inset Hubble Space Telescope image resolves hydrogen clouds as small as 10 light-years across within 150 light-years of the core. The clouds are glowing because they are caught in a “searchlight” of radiation beamed out of the galaxy’s black hole, which is larger and more active than the black hole in the heart of our galaxy.
Credit: NASA, ESA, Alex Filippenko (UC Berkeley), William Sparks (STScI), Luis C. Ho (KIAA-PKU), Matthew A Malkan (UCLA), Alessandro Capetti (STScI), Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

Hubble ultraviolet-light spectra have been used to measure the expansion velocity and composition of the ballooning lobes. Hubble spectra later found that the burst was so powerful that it lit up a gaseous structure, called the Magellanic stream, at about 200,000 light-years from the galactic center. Gas is glowing from that event even today.

To get a better idea of what’s going on, Cecil looked at Hubble and radio images of another galaxy with a black hole outflow. Located 47 million light-years away, the active spiral galaxy NGC 1068 has a string of bubble features aligned along an outflow from the very active black hole at its center. Cecil found that the scales of the radio and X-ray structures emerging from both NGC 1068 and our Milky Way are very similar. “A bow shock bubble at the top of the NGC 1068 outflow coincides with the scale of the Fermi bubble start in the Milky Way. NGC 1068 may be showing us what the Milky Way was doing during its major power surge several million years ago.”

The residual jet feature is close enough to the Milky Way’s black hole that it would become much more prominent only a few decades after the black hole powers up again. Cecil notes that “the black hole need only increase its luminosity by a hundredfold over that time to refill the jet channel with emitting particles. It would be cool to see how far the jet gets in that outburst. To reach into the Fermi gamma-ray bubbles would require that the jet sustain for hundreds of thousands of years because those bubbles are each 50,000 light years across!”

The anticipated images of the black hole’s shadow made with the National Science Foundation’s Event Horizon Telescope may reveal where and how the jet is launched.

Reference: “Tracing the Milky Way’s Vestigial Nuclear Jet” by Gerald Cecil, Alexander Y. Wagner, Joss Bland-Hawthorn, Geoffrey V. Bicknell and Dipanjan Mukherjee, 6 December 2021, Astrophysical Journal.
DOI: 10.3847/1538-4357/ac224f

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and ESA (European Space Agency). NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, D.C.

AstronomyAstrophysicsBlack HoleHubble Space TelescopeMilky WayPopularSpace Telescope Science Institute
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  • Babu G. Ranganathan

    Babu G. Ranganathan*
    (B.A. Bible/Biology)

    JUST BECAUSE SCIENCE CAN EXPLAIN how an airplane works doesn’t mean that no one designed or made the airplane. And just because science can explain how life or the universe works doesn’t mean there was no Designer and Maker behind them.

    Natural laws may explain how the order in the universe works and operates, but mere undirected natural laws cannot explain the origin of that order. Once you have a complete and living cell then the genetic code and biological machinery exist to direct the formation of more cells from raw materials such as amino acids and other chemicals, but how could life or the cell have naturally originated when no directing code and mechanisms existed in nature? Read my Internet article: HOW FORENSIC SCIENCE REFUTES ATHEISM.

    WHAT IS SCIENCE? Science simply is knowledge based on observation. No human observed the universe coming by chance or by design, by creation or by evolution. These are positions of faith. The issue is which faith the scientific evidence best supports.

    SCIENCE SHOWS THAT THE UNIVERSE CANNOT BE ETERNAL because it could not have sustained itself eternally due to the law of entropy (increasing and irreversible net energy decay, even in an open system). Even a hypothetical oscillating universe could not continue to oscillate eternally! Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity shows that space, matter, and time all are physical and all had a beginning. Space even produces particles because it’s actually something, not nothing. What about the Higgs boson (the so-called “God Particle”)? The Higgs boson, even if it existed, would not have created mass from nothing, but rather it would have converted energy into mass. Einstein showed that all matter is some form of energy. Even time had a beginning! Time is not eternal.

    The law of entropy doesn’t allow the universe to be eternal. If the universe were eternal, everything, including time (which modern science has shown is as physical as mass and space), would have become totally entropied by now and the entire universe would have ended in a uniform heat death a long, long time ago. The fact that this hasn’t happened already is powerful evidence for a beginning to the universe.

    Popular atheistic scientist Stephen Hawking admits that the universe had a beginning and came from nothing but he believes that nothing became something by a natural process yet to be discovered. That’s not rational thinking at all, and it also would be making the effect greater than its cause to say that nothing created something. The beginning had to be of supernatural origin because science teaches us from the First Law of Thermodynamics that natural laws and processes do not have the ability to bring something into existence from nothing.

    The supernatural origin of the universe cannot be proved by science but science points to a supernatural intelligence and power for the origin and order of the universe. Where did God come from? Obviously, unlike the universe, God’s nature doesn’t require a beginning.

    The disorder in the universe can be explained because of chance and random processes, but the order can be explained only because of intelligence and design.

    Gravity may explain how the order found in the precise and orderly courses of thousands of billions of stars is maintained, but gravity cannot explain the origin of that order.

    Some evolutionary astronomers believe that trillions of stars crashed into each other leaving surviving stars to find precise orderly orbits in space. Not only is this irrational, but if there was such a mass collision of stars then there would be a super mass residue of gas clouds in space to support this hypothesis. The present level of residue of gas clouds in space doesn’t support the magnitude of star deaths required for such a hypothesis. And, as already stated, the origin of stars cannot be explained by the Big Bang because of the reasons mentioned above. It’s one thing to say that stars may decay and die into random gas clouds, but it is totally different to say that gas clouds form into stars.

    Even the father of Chaos theory admitted that the “mechanisms” existing in the non-living world allow for only very rudimentary levels of order to arise spontaneously (by chance), but not the kind or level of order we find in the structures of DNA, RNA, and proteins. Yes, individual amino acids have been shown to come into existence by chance but not protein molecules which require that the various amino acids be in a precise sequence just like the letters found in a sentence.

    Some things don’t need experiment or scientific proof. In law there is a dictum called prima facie evidence. It means “evidence that speaks for itself.”

    An example of a true prima facie would be if you discovered an elaborate sand castle on the beach. You don’t have to experiment to know that it came by design and not by the chance forces of wind and water.

    If you discovered a romantic letter or message written in the sand, you don’t have to experiment to know that it was by design and not because a stick randomly carried by wind put it there. You naturally assume that an intelligent and rational being was responsible.

    It’s interesting that Carl Sagan would have acknowledged sequential radio signals in space as evidence of intelligent life sending them, but he wouldn’t acknowledge the sequential structure of molecules in DNA (the genetic code) as evidence of an intelligent Cause. Read my popular Internet article, HOW DID MY DNA MAKE ME.

    I encourage all to read my popular Internet articles:

    NATURAL LIMITS TO EVOLUTION
    HOW FORENSIC SCIENCE REFUTES ATHEISM

    Visit my latest Internet site: THE SCIENCE SUPPORTING CREATION (This site answers many arguments, both old and new, that have been used by evolutionists to support their theory)

    Author of popular Internet article, TRADITIONAL DOCTRINE OF HELL EVOLVED FROM GREEK ROOTS

    *I have given successful lectures (with question and answer period afterwards) defending creation before evolutionist science faculty and students at various colleges and universities. I’ve been privileged to be recognized in the 24th edition of Marquis “Who’s Who in The East” for my writings on religion and science.

  • Raymond Dunne

    What is the point of trying to figure this out and the various arguments as to which theories are possibly valid and which ones are not. It’s still all speculation and subjective opinions and none of it really matters. We’re here today, by whatever forces created that. That’s all that really matters, the how does not. And what if there were a theory that was logical and everybody agreed on or if some type of evidence of a design process were to be discovered? Would it really change anything?

  • Raymond Dunne

    Sorry, got me thinking, that can be good or bad but to continue past my last comment, what if there is some great knowledge to be found which could explain creation and eternity, the beginning? Wouldn’t that also explain and possibly be a trigger for the end? Maybe we shouldn’t be looking for answers to things that can’t be explained. I think the world, society wise has gone way past a point where God has been needed to step in and have his day. We’re falling apart, more so every day. We’re on a path which cannot be sustained, not only resource wise but also socially. Who’s great big idea was it to start forming communities anyway? That’s what I want to know because from what I see today, it was a very bad idea!