The Milky Way’s Tumultuous Heart Revealed In X-Rays

 

X-ray_view_of_the_Galactic_Centre_940x540

This new image of powerful remnants of dead stars and their mighty action on the surrounding gas from the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton X-ray satellite observatory reveals some of the most intense processes taking place at the centre of our galaxy, the Milky Way.

The bright, point-like sources that stand out across the image trace binary stellar systems in which one of the stars has reached the end of its life, evolving into a compact and dense object — a neutron star or black hole. Because of their high densities, these compact remnants devour mass from their companion star, heating the material up and causing it to shine brightly in X-rays.

The central region of our galaxy also contains young stars and stellar clusters, and some of these are visible as white or red sources sprinkled throughout the image, which spans about one thousand light-years.

Most of the action is occurring at the centre, where diffuse clouds of gas are being carved by powerful winds blown by young stars, as well as by supernovae, the explosive demise of massive stars.

The supermassive black hole sitting at the centre of the Galaxy is also responsible for some of this action. Known as Sagittarius A*, this black hole has a mass a few million times that of our Sun, and it is located within the bright, fuzzy source to the right of the image centre.

While black holes themselves do not emit light, their immense gravitational pull draws in the surrounding matter that, in the process, emits light at many wavelengths, most notably X-rays. In addition, two lobes of hot gas can be seen extending above and below the black hole.

Astronomers believe that these lobes are caused either directly by the black hole, which swallows part of the material that flows onto it but spews out most of it, or by the cumulative effect of the numerous stellar winds and supernova explosions that occur in such a dense environment.

This image, showing us an unprecedented view of the Milky Way’s energetic core, was put together in a new study by compiling all observations of this region that were performed with XMM-Newton, adding up to about one and a half months of monitoring in total.

The_Galactic_Centre_through_the_emission_of_heavy_elements_940x392

The central regions of our galaxy, the Milky Way, seen in X-rays by ESA’s XMM-Newton X-ray observatory. This image combines data collected at energies that correspond to the light emitted by heavy elements such as silicon and argon, which are produced primarily in supernova explosions, as well as other narrow energy bands. It spans about 2.5° across, equivalent to about one thousand light-years. Image credits: © ESA/XMM-Newton/G. Ponti et al. 2015.

The large, elliptical structure to the lower right of Sagittarius A* is a super-bubble of hot gas, likely puffed up by the remnants of several supernovae at its centre. While this structure was already known to astronomers, this study confirms for the first time that it consists of a single, gigantic bubble rather than the superposition of several, individual supernova remnants along the line of sight.

Another huge pocket of hot gas, designated the ‘Arc Bubble’ due to its crescent-like shape, can be seen close to the image centre, to the lower left of the supermassive black hole. It is being inflated by the forceful winds of stars in a nearby stellar cluster, as well as by supernovae; the remnant of one of these explosions, a candidate pulsar wind nebula, was detected at the core of the bubble.

The rich data set compiled in this study contains observations that span the full range of X-ray energies covered by XMM-Newton; these include some energies corresponding to the light emitted by heavy elements such as silicon, sulphur and argon, which are produced primarily in supernova explosions. By combining these additional information present in the data, the astronomers obtained another, complementary view of the Galactic Centre, which reveals beautifully the lobes and bubbles described earlier on.

In addition, this alternative view also displays the emission, albeit very faint, from warm plasma in the upper and lower parts of the image. This warm plasma might be the collective macroscopic effect of outflows generated by star formation throughout this entire central zone.

Another of the possible explanations for such emission links it to the turbulent past of the now not-so-active supermassive black hole. Astronomers believe that, earlier on in the history of our galaxy, Sagittarius A* was accreting and ejecting mass at a much higher rate, like the black holes found at the centre of many galaxies, and these diffuse clouds of warm plasma could be a legacy of its ancient activity.

 

Andromeda and Milky Way Might Collide Sooner Than We Think

The merger of the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxy won’t happen for another 4 billion years, but the recent discovery of a massive halo of hot gas around Andromeda may mean our galaxies are already touching. University of Notre Dame astrophysicist Nicholas Lehner led a team of scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope to identify an enormous halo of hot, ionized gas at least 2 million light years in diameter surrounding the galaxy.

The Andromeda Galaxy is the largest member of a ragtag collection of some 54 galaxies, including the Milky Way, called the Local Group. With a trillion stars — twice as many as the Milky Way — it shines 25% brighter and can easily be seen with the naked eye from suburban and rural skies.

Think about this for a moment. If the halo extends at least a million light years in our direction, our two galaxies are MUCH closer to touching that previously thought. Granted, we’re only talking halo interactions at first, but the two may be mingling molecules even now if our galaxy is similarly cocooned.

Lehner describes halos as the “gaseous atmospheres of galaxies”.  Despite its enormous size, Andromeda’s nimbus is virtually invisible. To find and study the halo, the team sought out quasars, distant star-like objects that radiate tremendous amounts of energy as matter funnels into the super-massive black holes in their cores. The brightest quasar, 3C273 in Virgo, can be seen in a 6-inch telescope! Their brilliant, pinpoint nature make them perfect probes.


 

Andromeda_Collides_Milky_Way

“This illustration shows a stage in the predicted merger between our Milky Way galaxy and the neighboring Andromeda galaxy, as it will unfold over the next several billion years. In this image, representing Earth’s night sky in 3.75 billion years, Andromeda (left) fills the field of view and begins to distort the Milky Way with tidal pull. Credit: NASA; ESA; Z. Levay and R. van der Marel, STScI; T. Hallas; and A. Mellinger”


“As the light from the quasars travels toward Hubble, the halo’s gas will absorb some of that light and make the quasar appear a little darker in just a very small wavelength range,” said J. Christopher Howk , associate professor of physics at Notre Dame and co-investigator. “By measuring the dip in brightness, we can tell how much halo gas from M31 there is between us and that quasar.”

Astronomers have observed halos around 44 other galaxies but never one as massive as Andromeda where so many quasars are available to clearly define its extent. The previous 44 were all extremely distant galaxies, with only a single quasar or data point to determine halo size and structure.

Andromeda’s close and huge with lots of quasars peppering its periphery. The team drew from about five years’ worth of observations of archived Hubble data to find many of the 18 objects needed for a good sample.

The halo is estimated to contain half the mass of the stars in the Andromeda galaxy itself, in the form of a hot, diffuse gas. Simulations suggest that it formed at the same time as the rest of the galaxy. Although mostly composed of ionized hydrogen — naked protons and electrons —  Andromeda’s aura is also rich in heavier elements, probably supplied by supernovae. They erupt within the visible galaxy and violently blow good stuff like iron, silicon, oxygen and other familiar elements far into space. Over Andromeda’s lifetime, nearly half of all the heavy elements made by its stars have been expelled far beyond the galaxy’s 200,000-light-year-diameter stellar disk.

You might wonder if galactic halos might account for some or much of the still-mysterious dark matter. Probably not. While dark matter still makes up the bulk of the solid material in the universe, astronomers have been trying to account for the lack of visible matter in galaxies as well. Halos now seem a likely contributor.

The next clear night you look up to spy Andromeda, know this: It’s closer than you think!

 

Raj Ondhia