NASA Spots Milky Way Black Hole "Flare-Up"


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NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) has taken its first images of the giant black hole at the center of our galaxy and caught it in the middle of a "flare-up."

"We got lucky to have captured an outburst from the black hole during our observing campaign," said Fiona Harrison, the mission's principal investigator at the California Institute of Technology. "These data will help us better understand the gentle giant at the heart of our galaxy and why it sometimes flares up for a few hours and then returns to slumber."

These results come from two days in July when NuSTAR and other observatories observed Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*), a compact radio source at the center of the Milky Way galaxy where observations have shown a black hole resides. According to NASA, Sgr A* is "quiet" compared to the black holes at the centers of other galaxies. Instead of taking in large amounts of the matter surrounding it, Sgr A* is thought to only take in only a little or none.

"Astronomers have long speculated that the black hole's 'snacking' should produce copious hard X-rays, but NuSTAR is the first telescope with sufficient sensitivity to actually detect them," said NuSTAR team member Chuck Hailey of Columbia University.

According to NASA, the NuSTAR is the only telescope capable of taking focused images of the highest-energy X-rays. The telescope is NASA's newest X-ray telescope and was launched back on June 13, 2012. NASA states that these new observations will help researchers understand the physics of how black holes "snack" and grow.

The other telescopes used in the observations were the W.M. Keck Observatory at the top of Muana Kea in Hawaii, which took infrared images, and the Chandra X-ray Observatory, which uses lower-energy X-ray observations and was recently used to determine that our galaxy is surrounded by a halo of hot gas.

(Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech)