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Milky Way’s Giant Black Hole Awoke from Slumber 300 Years Ago

For Release: April 16, 2008

GSFC Release

Black Hole Awoke
Image Credit: NASA/CXC/MIT/Frederick K. Baganoff et al

Using NASA, Japanese, and European X-ray satellites, a team of Japanese astronomers has discovered that our galaxy’s central black hole let loose a powerful flare three centuries ago.

The finding helps resolve a long-standing mystery: why is the Milky Way’s black hole so quiescent? The black hole, known as Sagittarius A* (pronounced "A-star"), is a certified monster, containing about 4 million times the mass of our Sun. Yet the energy radiated from its surroundings is billions of times weaker than the radiation emitted from central black holes in other galaxies.

"We have wondered why the Milky Way’s black hole appears to be a slumbering giant," says team leader Tatsuya Inui of Kyoto University in Japan. "But now we realize that the black hole was far more active in the past. Perhaps it’s just resting after a major outburst."

The new study, which will appear in the Publications of the Astronomical Society of Japan, combines results from Japan’s Suzaku and ASCA X-ray satellites, NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, and the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton X-ray Observatory.

The observations, collected between 1994 and 2005, revealed that clouds of gas near the central black hole brightened and faded quickly in X-ray light as they responded to X-ray pulses emanating from just outside the black hole. When gas spirals inward toward the black hole, it heats up to millions of degrees and emits X-rays. As more and more matter piles up near the black hole, the greater the X-ray output.

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