5 June, 2019Scientific Paper
New observations from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) reveal a never-before-seen disk of cold, interstellar gas wrapped around the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. This nebulous disk gives astronomers new insights into the workings of accretion: the siphoning of material onto the surface of a black hole. The results are published in the journal Nature.
Through decades of study, astronomers have developed a clearer picture of the chaotic and crowded neighborhood surrounding the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. Our galactic center is approximately 26,000 light-years from Earth and the supermassive black hole there, known as Sagittarius A* (A “star”), is 4 million times the mass of our Sun. We now know that this region is brimming with roving stars, interstellar dust clouds, and a large reservoir of both phenomenally hot and comparatively colder gases. These gases are expected to orbit the black hole in a vast accretion disk that extends a few tenths of a light-year from the black hole’s event horizon.
Until now, however, astronomers have only been able to image the tenuous, hot portion of this accreting gas, which forms a roughly spherical flow and showed no obvious rotation. Its temperature is estimated to be a blistering 10 million degrees Celsius (18 million degrees Fahrenheit), or about half the temperature found at the core of our Sun. At this temperature, the gas glows fiercely in X-ray light, allowing it to be studied by space-based X-ray telescopes, down to a scale of about a tenth of a light-year from the black hole.
In addition to this hot, glowing gas, previous observations with millimeter-wavelength telescopes have detected a vast store of comparatively cooler hydrogen gas (nearly10 thousand degrees Celsius or 18,000 degrees Fahrenheit) within few light years around the black hole. The contribution of this cooler gas to the accretion flow onto the back hole was previously unknown.
Although our galactic center black hole is relatively quiet, the radiation around it is strong enough to cause hydrogen atoms to lose and recombine with their electrons continually. This recombination produces a distinctive millimeter-wavelength signal, which is capable of reaching the Earth with minimal losses on the way. With its remarkable sensitivity and powerful ability to see fine details, ALMA was able to detect this faint radio signal and produce the first-ever image of the cooler gas disk surrounding the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole at only about a hundredth of a light-year away, or about 1000 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun. These observations enabled the astronomers both to map the location and trace the motion of this gas. The researchers estimate that the amount of hydrogen in this cold disk is about one-tenth the mass of Jupiter or one ten-thousandth of the mass of the Sun.
By mapping the shifts in wavelengths of this radio light due to the Doppler effect (light from objects moving toward the Earth is slightly shifted to the “bluer” portion of the spectrum while light from objects moving away is slightly shifted to the “redder” portion), the astronomers could clearly see that the gas is rotating around the black hole. This information will provide new insights into the ways that black holes devour matter and the complex interplay between a black hole and its galactic neighborhood.
“We were the first to image this elusive disk and study its rotation,” said Elena Murchikova, a member in astrophysics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.“We are also probing accretion onto the black hole. This is important because this is our closest supermassive black hole. Even so, we still have no good understanding of how its accretion works. We hope these new ALMA observations will help the black hole give up some of its secrets.”
Reference: E.M. Murchikova, et al., “A cool accretion disk around the Galactic Center black hole,” Nature, 06 June 2019.
The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (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) in Taiwan 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.