Dating our Galaxy's dormant volcano

AAO Fellow Dr Joss Bland-Hawthorn and his colleagues have determined exactly when there was last a giant outburst of energy from the heart of our Galaxy.

A dormant volcano - a supermassive black hole - lies at the heart of our Galaxy. Fresh evidence suggests that it last erupted two million years ago.

Astronomers have long suspected such an outburst occurred, but this is the first time they've been able to date it.

The evidence comes from a lacy filament of gas, mostly hydrogen, called the Magellanic Stream. This trails behind our Galaxy's two small companion galaxies, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds.

"For twenty years we've seen this odd glow from the Magellanic Stream," said Professor Joss Bland-Hawthorn, an ARC Federation Fellow at the University of Sydney, Australia, and a Fellow at the Australian Astronomical Observatory, who led a team studying this problem.

"We didn't understand the cause. Then suddenly we realised it must be the mark, the fossil record, of a huge outburst of energy from the centre of our Galaxy."

"It's been long suspected that our Galactic Centre might have sporadically flared up in the past. These observations are a highly suggestive 'smoking gun'," said Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, who was one of the first people to suggest that black holes generate the power seen coming from quasars and galaxies with 'active' centres.

The team gives its arguments in a paper accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal. Professor Bland-Hawthorn will speak about the work at the Galaxy Zoo meeting in Sydney, Australia, on 24 September.

The Galaxy's supermassive black hole has been known for decades. It's orbited by a swarm of stars whose paths let us measure the black hole's mass: four million times the mass of the Sun.

The region around the black hole, called Sagittarius A* ["A-star"], pours out radio waves, infrared, X-rays and gamma rays.

Flickers of radiation rise up when small clouds of gas fall onto the hot disk of matter that swirls around the black hole.

But evidence has been building of a real cataclysm in the past. Infrared and X-ray satellites have seen a powerful "wind" (outflow) of material from this central region. Antimatter boiling out has left its signature. And there are the "Fermi bubbles" - two huge hot bubbles of gas billowing out from the Galactic Centre, seen in gamma-rays and radio waves.

"All this points to a huge explosion at the centre of our Galaxy," said team member Dr Philip Maloney of the University of Colorado in Boulder, USA. "What astronomers call a Seyfert flare."

Scientists studying the Galactic Centre came together at a workshop at Stanford University in California earlier this year.

While at the workshop, Professor Bland-Hawthorn realised the Stream could be holding the memory of the Galactic Centre's past.

Struck by the fiery breath of Sagittarius A*, the Stream is emitting light, much as particles from the Sun hit our atmosphere and trigger the coloured glows of the aurorae - the Northern and Southern Lights.

In the Stream, ultraviolet light splits hydrogen atoms into protons and electrons. When those components recombine, the electrons give off "H-alpha" emission - a specific wavelength of light.

The brightest glow in the Stream comes from the region nearest the Galactic Centre.

Geometry, the amount of energy from the original flare from Sagittarius A*, the time the flare would take to travel to the Magellanic Stream, the rate at which the Stream would have cooled over time - "it all fits together, it all adds up," says team member Dr Greg Madsen of the University of Cambridge in the UK.

The Galaxy's stars don't produce enough ultraviolet to account for the glow. Nor could they have in the past, says Professor Bland-Hawthorn. "The Galactic Centre never formed stars at a high enough rate."

Will such an explosion happen again?

"There are lots of stars and gas clouds that could fall onto the hot disk around the black hole," says Professor Bland-Hawthorn.

"There's a gas cloud called G2 that we think will fall in next year. It's small, but we're looking forward to the fireworks!"

 Image

http://www.cosmotography.com/img_masters/gabany_close_ngc5033.tif

Credit: R. Jay GaBany (Cosmotography.com), J. Bland-Hawthorn (U Sydney)

Caption: The supermassive black hole at the centre of our Galaxy was 100 million times more powerful about two million years ago.

Video

Used with the permission of the creators.

 Original (14 MB)
http://www.slac.stanford.edu/~kaehler/movies/black-hole-jet-VGA.mov

 YouTube
http://youtu.be/rizsKQ24Ju8

 Credits:
Simulation: McKinney (UMD), Tchekhovskoy (Princeton) and Blandford (KIPAC)
Visualization: Kaehler (KIPAC)

 Caption: Simulation of a black hole's jet.

 Publication

 J. Bland-Hawthorn, Philip R. Maloney, Ralph S. Sutherland, G.J. Madsen.
"Fossil Imprint of a Powerful Flare at the Galactic Centre Along the Magellanic Stream."
Accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal. Online at http://tiny.cc/tokp3w

 Galaxy Zoo meeting, 23-26 September 2013, Sydney, Australia
http://www.atnf.csiro.au/research/conferences/2013/gzo/

Researcher contacts

Professor Joss Bland-Hawthorn, University of Sydney, Australia and Australian Astronomical Observatory (UTC + 10)
Phone: +61 2 9351 2621
Mobile: +61 406 973 133
Email: jbh@physics.usyd.edu.au

Dr Philip Maloney
Office: +1 303 492 5055
Home: +1 303 413 9518
Email: Philip.Maloney@colorado.edu

Dr Greg Madsen
Phone: +44 (0) 1223 765 846
Mobile: +44 (0) 7753 143 554
Email: gmadsen@ast.cam.ac.uk

Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal (not a member of the research team)
Email: mjr36@cam.ac.uk

Media contact

Helen Sim, Australian Astronomical Observatory
Mobile: +61 419 635 905
Email: hsim@aao.gov.au