NASA spots massive outburst from our very own black hole

Its root cause still undetermined, a huge X-ray flare from the Milky Way's center has made NASA scientists sit up and take notice.

Michael Franco
Freelancer Michael Franco writes about the serious and silly sides of science and technology for CNET and other pixel and paper pubs. He's kept his fingers on the keyboard while owning a B&B in Amish country, managing an eco-resort in the Caribbean, sweating in Singapore, and rehydrating (with beer, of course) in Prague. E-mail Michael.
Michael Franco
2 min read
The X-ray flare from Sagittarius A* is the largest ever observed coming from the supermassive black hole. NASA/CXC/Stanford/I. Zhuravleva et al.

As you might know, the Milky Way Galaxy, in which we are all floating, has a black hole with a mass 4.5 million times bigger than that of our sun at its very center. So, when NASA says a documented occurrence in that vast pit of darkness "raises questions about the behavior of this giant black hole and its surrounding environment," I get a little nervous.

Fortunately, the observation they're talking about is little cause for alarm. What happened is that back in September of 2013, the Chandra X-Ray space observatory recorded an X-ray flare from the center of the Milky Way's black hole (a vortex known as Sagittarius A*, or Sgr A*) that was 400 times brighter than the energy usually emitted from the area. You can see the flare in the image above. NASA is presenting this documentation at the 225th meeting of the American Astronomical Society, slated in Seattle this week.

What caused the outburst from the usually quiet region of our galaxy? NASA has two theories.

First is that an asteroid wandered too close to the black hole and got ripped apart by the hole's extreme gravitational force. Before the asteroid crossed over the hole's event horizon (or point of no return), the debris it produced got superheated and released the X-rays.

"If an asteroid was torn apart, it would go around the black hole for a couple of hours -- like water circling an open drain -- before falling in," said researcher Fred Baganoff of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in a statement. "That's just how long we saw the brightest X-ray flare last, so that is an intriguing clue for us to consider."

The second theory about the burst is that the lines of magnetic energy contained in the gas flowing into Sgr A* got tangled and released the X-rays. NASA says that the pattern observed is similar to those found in such types of flares observed from our sun.

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But mostly, the space agency really isn't quite sure what caused the outburst.

"The bottom line is the jury is still out on what's causing these giant flares from Sgr A*," said researcher Gabriele Ponti of the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching, Germany. "Such rare and extreme events give us a unique chance to use a mere trickle of infalling matter to understand the physics of one of the most bizarre objects in our galaxy."