Record-Breaking Outburst of X-rays Detected from Supermassive Black Hole

First Posted: Jan 06, 2015 10:06 AM EST

A team of scientists have observed and recorded the largest-ever flare in X-rays from a supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy. The latest findings, detected last September, puts researchers one step closer to understanding the nature and behavior of supermassive black holes.

Supermassive black holes are the largest of black holes. They can be found in the centers of large galaxies, like our own Milky Way. The one at the center of our own galaxy is called Sagittarius A*, which contains about four and a half million times the mass of our sun.

Since the Chandra X-ray Observatory was first launched into space in 1999, scientists have used it to monitor Sagittarisu A*. The goal was to see if the supermassive black hole would consume parts of a cloud of gas, known as G2. Yet as the gas cloud approached the black hole, it didn't produce the fireworks  that the scientists expected. Instead, they observed something completely different.

The scientists spotted an X-ray outburst that was 400 times brighter than the usual X-ray output from the supermassive black hole. This "megaflare" was nearly three times brighter than the previous record holder seen in early 2012.

So what caused this outburst? It could be that the gravity of the supermassive black hole tore apart a couple of asteroids that wandered too close. The debris from this disruption would have been very hot and would have produced X-rays before disappearing inside the black hole.

The second theory is that the magnetic field lines within the material flowing toward the supermassive black hole are packed incredibly tightly. If this is the case, these field lines would occasionally interconnect and reconfigure themselves. When this happens, their magnetic energy is converted into the energy of motion, heat and the acceleration of particles, which could produce a bright X-ray flare.

"At the moment, we can't distinguish between these two very different ideas," said Daryl Haggard, one of the researchers, in a news release. "It's exciting to identify tensions between models and to have a chance to resolve them with present and future observations."

The findings show a bit more about the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy. For now, astronomers hope to continue observing this black hole in order to learn a bit more about it.

The findings were presented during the meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle.

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