National Geographic News: NATIONALGEOGRAPHIC.COM/NEWS
 

 

Supermassive Black Hole at Center of Milky Way, Study Hints

John Roach
for National Geographic News
November 2, 2005
 
Astronomers are closing in on proof that a supermassive black hole is the source of mysterious radio waves at the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way.

Black holes are objects whose gravitational pull is so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape. Supermassive black holes contain the mass of millions, if not billions, of suns.

Astronomers have long suspected that supermassive black holes sit at the heart of most galaxies and may be closely related to galaxy growth. But concrete proof of the existence of these black holes has remained elusive.

"There are many pieces of evidence that need to come together to really demonstrate that a supermassive black hole is at the center of our own galaxy," said Fred K.Y. Lo, the director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Lo is a member of an international team of astronomers who used an array of radio telescopes to make new high-resolution measurements of a source of radio waves at the center of the Milky Way known as Sgr A* (pronounced "Sagittarius A star").

Radio telescopes capture images of electromagnetic waves that optical telescopes can't detect.

The new measurements strengthen the argument almost beyond doubt that Sgr A* is a black hole, Lo said.

He and his colleagues report their new observations in tomorrow's issue of the journal Nature.

In an accompanying commentary, University of Maryland astronomer Christopher Reynolds wrote, "these observations provide strong evidence that Sgr A* is indeed a black hole."

Tightening Noose

Astronomers previously theorized that Sgr A* is a black hole based on observations of the stars speeding around it.

The observations showed that the object is four million times more massive than the sun and is no bigger than Pluto's orbit.

Few objects of such mass could fit in such a small space, Reynolds said.

The likeliest candidates are either a supermassive black hole or a cluster of several million stellar remnants. Such a cluster would survive for about 20,000 years before eventually becoming a black hole itself, he said.

The latest evidence that Sgr A* is indeed a black hole comes from new measurements that constrain the object to a size of one astronomical unit (AU), a span equal to Earth's distance from the sun.

This is half the size measured in any previous observation of Sgr A*.

"This is what makes it interesting," Lo said. "We are really probing the size of the black hole."

Lead study author Zhiqiang Shen of the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory says the new data also suggest that Sgr A* has a mass density at least a trillion times greater than any known cosmic object.

"With such a mass density, the lifetime for a dark cluster of stellar remnants would be less than a hundred years," Shen said in an e-mail interview.

According to Reynolds of the University of Maryland, astronomers are very unlikely to witness such a short-lived phenomenon.

The Clincher?

Shen, Lo, and colleagues made their new measurements of Sgr A* with an array of ten radio telescopes strung across the U.S. from Mauna Kea, Hawaii, to St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Known as the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA), the array can view radio waves in the finest detail of any telescope on Earth. Refined observation techniques allowed the team to view radio waves emitted just beyond the edge of Sgr A*.

Further refinements and new instruments may allow astronomers to eventually capture an image of a distinctive shadow around the black hole.

The shadow is caused by radiation from sources that cross the so-called event horizon—the point of no return surrounding a black hole.

"That would really put the nail in the coffin," Lo said.

Free E-Mail News Updates
Sign up for our Inside National Geographic newsletter. Every two weeks we'll send you our top stories and pictures (see sample).

 

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.