From AAS NOVA via From Sky & Telescope : “Flares from the Milky Way’s Supermassive Black Hole”

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Sky & Telescope

April 12, 2021

The supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way released an unusual number of strong flares in 2019. Now, astronomers are trying to figure out why.

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Artist’s impression of the disruption of a gas cloud as it passes close to Sgr A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy.
European Southern Observatory(EU) / MPG Institute for extraterrestrial Physics [MPG Institut für extraterrestrische Physik] ( DE)/ Marc Schartmann

In 2019, the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy woke up and emitted a series of burps. A new study now examines what meal may have led to this indigestion.

Waking Up for a Snack

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Artist’s impression of the dramatic outflows from an active galaxy’s nucleus. The Milky Way’s supermassive black hole, in contrast, is very quiet.

Lynette Cook

Sgr A*, the 4.6-million-solar-mass black hole that lies at the center of the Milky Way, is normally a fairly quiet beast. The black hole slowly feeds on accreting material in the galactic center — but this food source is sparse, and Sgr A*’s accretion doesn’t produce anything like the fireworks we associate with supermassive black holes in active galaxies.

In May 2019, however, Sgr A* suddenly became substantially more active than usual, producing an unprecedented bright, near-infrared flare that lasted roughly 2.5 hours. This flare was more than 100 times brighter than the typical emission from Sgr A*’s casual accretion, and more than twice as bright as the brightest flare we’ve ever measured from our neighborhood monster.

The May 2019 flare marked the start of prolonged increased activity — an unusual number of strong flares that continued at least throughout 2019 (currently analyzed data extends only to the end of that year). What caused Sgr A* to wake up? And do we expect more flaring ahead? A new study by Lena Murchikova (Institute for Advanced Study (US)) explores the options.

Star S0-2 Andrea Ghez Keck/UCLA Galactic Center Group (US) at SGR A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way.

Sgr A*’s flares likely came from an abrupt increase in the amount of material available to accrete onto this black hole. Murchikova identifies two likely sources of this excess material.

Shedding S stars
The dense nucleus of our galaxy hosts a population of stars on tight orbits around Sgr A*. These stars shed mass via stellar winds, and when the stars swing close around Sgr A* at the pericenter of their orbit, this shed mass could accrete onto Sgr A*.
Disintegrating G objects
Also known to orbit close to Sgr A* are so-called G objects. These extended sources may be gas clouds, stars, or a combination of the two — we’re not sure yet! Tenuous G objects lose mass as a result of friction as they orbit, exhibiting higher rates of mass loss as they get closer to Sgr A* and are stretched out into shapes with large surfaces areas passing through dense background material. The mass they lose through this disintegration at pericenter could then accrete onto Sgr A*.

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The objects G2 (colored red) and G1 (colored blue) and the star S2 are visible in these high-resolution images of the galactic center, taken in 2006 (left) and in 2008 (right). The position of Sgr A* is marked with an X.
SOFIA / Lynette Cook [above]

Through a series of calculations, Murchikova estimates how much material is shed by these two types of objects and how long it would take that material to accrete onto Sgr A*. Based on the available observations, the author finds that the most likely explanation for our black hole’s unexpected rumblings in 2019 is currently accreting material from the combined past pericenter passages of the objects G1 and G2.

If this interpretation is correct, we would expect to see flaring continue for a limited time, but Sgr A* should then return to its quiescent state. If the flaring was instead a part of normal variability in the flow of accreting material onto Sgr A*, we would expect the activity to continue for years to come. Continued observations of this rumbling giant will tell!

Citation

“S0-2 Star, G1- and G2-objects, and Flaring Activity of the Milky Way’s Galactic Center Black Hole in 2019,” Lena Murchikova 2021 ApJL 910 L1. https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.3847/2041-8213/abeb70

See the full article here .

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Sky & Telescope, founded in 1941 by Charles A. Federer Jr. and Helen Spence Federer, has the largest, most experienced staff of any astronomy magazine in the world. Its editors are virtually all amateur or professional astronomers, and every one has built a telescope, written a book, done original research, developed a new product, or otherwise distinguished him or herself.

Sky & Telescope magazine, now in its eighth decade, came about because of some happy accidents. Its earliest known ancestor was a four-page bulletin called The Amateur Astronomer, which was begun in 1929 by the Amateur Astronomers Association in New York City. Then, in 1935, the American Museum of Natural History opened its Hayden Planetarium and began to issue a monthly bulletin that became a full-size magazine called The Sky within a year. Under the editorship of Hans Christian Adamson, The Sky featured large illustrations and articles from astronomers all over the globe. It immediately absorbed The Amateur Astronomer.

Despite initial success, by 1939 the planetarium found itself unable to continue financial support of The Sky. Charles A. Federer, who would become the dominant force behind Sky & Telescope, was then working as a lecturer at the planetarium. He was asked to take over publishing The Sky. Federer agreed and started an independent publishing corporation in New York.

“Our first issue came out in January 1940,” he noted. “We dropped from 32 to 24 pages, used cheaper quality paper…but editorially we further defined the departments and tried to squeeze as much information as possible between the covers.” Federer was The Sky’s editor, and his wife, Helen, served as managing editor. In that January 1940 issue, they stated their goal: “We shall try to make the magazine meet the needs of amateur astronomy, so that amateur astronomers will come to regard it as essential to their pursuit, and professionals to consider it a worthwhile medium in which to bring their work before the public.”

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The Society, through its publications, disseminates and archives the results of astronomical research. The Society also communicates and explains our understanding of the universe to the public.
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