Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Radio astronomers lift ’fog’ on Milky Way’s dark heart

02.04.2004


Black hole fits inside Earth’s orbit



Thirty years after astronomers discovered the mysterious object at the exact center of our Milky Way Galaxy, an international team of scientists has finally succeeded in directly measuring the size of that object, which surrounds a black hole nearly four million times more massive than the Sun. This is the closest telescopic approach to a black hole so far and puts a major frontier of astrophysics within reach of future observations. The scientists used the National Science Foundation’s Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) radio telescope to make the breakthrough.

"This is a big step forward," said Geoffrey Bower, of the University of California-Berkeley. "This is something that people have wanted to do for 30 years," since the Galactic center object, called Sagittarius A* (pronounced "A-star"), was discovered in 1974. The astronomers reported their research in the April 1 edition of Science Express.


"Now we have a size for the object, but the mystery about its exact nature still remains," Bower added. The next step, he explained, is to learn its shape, "so we can tell if it is jets, a thin disk, or a spherical cloud."

The Milky Way’s center, 26,000 light-years from Earth, is obscured by dust, so visible-light telescopes cannot study the object. While radio waves from the Galaxy’s central region can penetrate the dust, they are scattered by turbulent charged plasma in the space along the line of sight to Earth. This scattering had frustrated earlier attempts to measure the size of the central object, just as fog blurs the glare of distant lighthouses.

"After 30 years, radio telescopes finally have lifted the fog and we can see what is going on," said Heino Falcke, of the Westerbork Radio Observatory in the Netherlands, another member of the research team.

The bright, radio-emitting object would fit neatly just inside the path of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, the astronomers said. The black hole itself, they calculate, is about 14 million miles across, and would fit easily inside the orbit of Mercury. Black holes are concentrations of matter so dense that not even light can escape their powerful gravity.

The new VLBA observations provided astronomers their best look yet at a black hole system. "We are much closer to seeing the effects of a black hole on its environment here than anywhere else," Bower said.

The Milky Way’s central black hole, like its more-massive cousins in more-active galactic nuclei, is believed to be drawing in material from its surroundings, and in the process powering the emission of the radio waves. While the new VLBA observations have not provided a final answer on the nature of this process, they have helped rule out some theories, Bower said. Based on the latest work, he explained, the top remaining theories for the nature of the radio- emitting object are jets of subatomic particles, similar to those seen in radio galaxies; and some theories involving matter being accelerated near the edge of the black hole.

As the astronomers studied Sagittarius A* at higher and higher radio frequencies, the apparent size of the object became smaller. This fact, too, Bower said, helped rule out some ideas of the object’s nature. The decrease in observed size with increasing frequency, or shorter wavelength, also gives the astronomers a tantalizing target.

"We think we can eventually observe at short enough wavelengths that we will see a cutoff when we reach the size of the black hole itself," Bower said. In addition, he said, "in future observations, we hope to see a ’shadow’ cast by a gravitational lensing effect of the very strong gravity of the black hole."

In 2000, Falcke and his colleagues proposed such an observation on theoretical grounds, and it now seems feasible. "Imaging the shadow of the black hole’s event horizon is now within our reach, if we work hard enough in the coming years," Falcke added.

Another conclusion the scientists reached is that "the total mass of the black hole is very concentrated," according to Bower. By making the "most precise localization of the mass of a supermassive black hole ever," the astronomers said that a mass of at least 40,000 Suns has to reside in a space corresponding to the size of the Earth’s orbit. Most likely, however, all the black hole’s mass -- equal to four million Suns -- is concentrated well inside the area engulfed by the radio-emitting object.

To make their measurement, the astronomers had to go to painstaking lengths to circumvent the scattering effect of the plasma "fog" between Sagittarius A* and Earth. "We had to push our technique really hard," Bower said.

Bower likened the task to "trying to see your yellow rubber duckie through the frosted glass of the shower stall." By making many observations, only keeping the highest-quality data, and mathematically removing the scattering effect of the plasma, the scientists succeeded in making the first-ever measurement of Sagittarius A*’s size.

In addition to Bower and Falcke, the research team includes Robin Herrnstein of Columbia University, Jun-Hui Zhao of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Miller Goss of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, and Donald Backer of the University of California-Berkeley. Falcke also is an adjunct professor at the University of Nijmegen and a visiting scientist at the Max-Planck Institute for Radioastronomy in Bonn, Germany.

Sagittarius A* was discovered in February of 1974 by Bruce Balick, now at the University of Washington, and Robert Brown, now director of the National Astronomy and Ionospheric Center at Cornell University. It has been shown conclusively to be the center of the Milky Way, around which the rest of the Galaxy rotates. In 1999, Mark Reid of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and his colleagues used VLBA observations of Sagittarius A* to detect the Earth’s motion in orbit around the Galaxy’s center and determined that our Solar System takes 226 million years to make one circuit around the Galaxy.

In March 2004, 55 astronomers gathered at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory facility in Green Bank, West Virginia, for a scientific conference celebrating the discovery of Sagittarius A* at Green Bank 30 years ago. At this conference, the scientists unveiled a commemorative plaque on one of the discovery telescopes.

The Very Long Baseline Array, part of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, is a continent-wide radio-telescope system, with 10, 240-ton dish antennas ranging from Hawaii to the Caribbean. It provides the greatest resolving power, or ability to see fine detail, of any telescope in astronomy, on Earth or in space.

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.

Dave Finley | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.berkeley.edu/

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Engineering team images tiny quasicrystals as they form
18.08.2017 | Cornell University

nachricht Astrophysicists explain the mysterious behavior of cosmic rays
18.08.2017 | Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Fizzy soda water could be key to clean manufacture of flat wonder material: Graphene

Whether you call it effervescent, fizzy, or sparkling, carbonated water is making a comeback as a beverage. Aside from quenching thirst, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have discovered a new use for these "bubbly" concoctions that will have major impact on the manufacturer of the world's thinnest, flattest, and one most useful materials -- graphene.

As graphene's popularity grows as an advanced "wonder" material, the speed and quality at which it can be manufactured will be paramount. With that in mind,...

Im Focus: Exotic quantum states made from light: Physicists create optical “wells” for a super-photon

Physicists at the University of Bonn have managed to create optical hollows and more complex patterns into which the light of a Bose-Einstein condensate flows. The creation of such highly low-loss structures for light is a prerequisite for complex light circuits, such as for quantum information processing for a new generation of computers. The researchers are now presenting their results in the journal Nature Photonics.

Light particles (photons) occur as tiny, indivisible portions. Many thousands of these light portions can be merged to form a single super-photon if they are...

Im Focus: Circular RNA linked to brain function

For the first time, scientists have shown that circular RNA is linked to brain function. When a RNA molecule called Cdr1as was deleted from the genome of mice, the animals had problems filtering out unnecessary information – like patients suffering from neuropsychiatric disorders.

While hundreds of circular RNAs (circRNAs) are abundant in mammalian brains, one big question has remained unanswered: What are they actually good for? In the...

Im Focus: RAVAN CubeSat measures Earth's outgoing energy

An experimental small satellite has successfully collected and delivered data on a key measurement for predicting changes in Earth's climate.

The Radiometer Assessment using Vertically Aligned Nanotubes (RAVAN) CubeSat was launched into low-Earth orbit on Nov. 11, 2016, in order to test new...

Im Focus: Scientists shine new light on the “other high temperature superconductor”

A study led by scientists of the Max Planck Institute for the Structure and Dynamics of Matter (MPSD) at the Center for Free-Electron Laser Science in Hamburg presents evidence of the coexistence of superconductivity and “charge-density-waves” in compounds of the poorly-studied family of bismuthates. This observation opens up new perspectives for a deeper understanding of the phenomenon of high-temperature superconductivity, a topic which is at the core of condensed matter research since more than 30 years. The paper by Nicoletti et al has been published in the PNAS.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, superconductivity had been observed in some metals at temperatures only a few degrees above the absolute zero (minus...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Call for Papers – ICNFT 2018, 5th International Conference on New Forming Technology

16.08.2017 | Event News

Sustainability is the business model of tomorrow

04.08.2017 | Event News

Clash of Realities 2017: Registration now open. International Conference at TH Köln

26.07.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

A Map of the Cell’s Power Station

18.08.2017 | Life Sciences

Engineering team images tiny quasicrystals as they form

18.08.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

Researchers printed graphene-like materials with inkjet

18.08.2017 | Materials Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>