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Supermassive black hole in center of our galaxy is fasting...for now

By Marshall Connolly, Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
September 27th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Scientists have figured out why the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy is so "quiet." It hasn't had anything to eat.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - The supermassive black hole in the center of our galaxy is fasting and hasn't had a big meal in the past two million years. Although that may seem dramatic, for a black hole, that is barely a space between snacks.

Black holes form when massive stars, many times the size of our Sun, fuse the hydrogen and other elements in their cores to the point that nuclear fusion can no longer occur. Without the exploding force of nuclear fusion, much of the matter in the star's core collapses inwards to a single point. The gravitational force becomes so great that no energy, not even light, can escape the overwhelming gravitational pull of the black hole.

Likewise, in the center of most galaxies, including our own, there reside supermassive black holes with masses hundreds of millions of times that of our Sun. How they formed is still unclear, but their effect is all the same. Anything that passes close enough gets ripped apart and falls towards the black hole. Some of the matter is consumed, and some of it is belched out in a cosmic blast at near-relativistic speeds.

The black hole at the center of our galaxy is four million times the mass of our Sun and just two million years ago was spewing jets of matter from its poles.

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This spewing of matter by means of polar jets is common and it is one of the ways in which scientists can detect black holes. Although black holes emit no light, they can be detected by the spiraling gasses which are compressed and accelerated around them as they spiral into the black hole. Those gasses emit radiation such as x-rays and gamma rays that can be detected on Earth. Some of those gasses end up in the cosmic jets spewing away from each pole.

Astronomers say they have now clearly observed speeding gasses from the poles of our own black hole. Although the black hole isn't spewing jets now, it did two million years ago. Those gasses are still streaming above and below our galaxy and can be observed with the right equipment.

These jets are activated each time the black hole consumes matter. The galatic center is filled with a swirling mass of stars and dust, but many of these objects stay far enough away they aren't consumed by the black hole, they just orbit as a respectful distance. However, occasionally a star is perturbed by other stars or clouds of dust and gas fall inwards and end up in the death grip of the black hole.

When that happens with enough material, the black hole will "switch on" on its polar jets, ejecting some of the matter above and below.

Understanding that this phenomenon occurs right in our cosmic backyard will help astronomers understand black holes better. It is thought they play a central role in the formation of galaxies and possibly even life itself.

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