June 15, 1990

Article at Reuters

Scientists snapshot a devouring black hole at galaxy’s centre

By Wilson da Silva

SYDNEY – Australian and U.S. astronomers have produced the clearest images yet of a black hole thought to reside at the centre of our galaxy, an object so powerful it devours an entire sun every 10,000 years.

The images released this week at an astronomers’ symposium in Albuquerque, New Mexico, after months of computer processing, appear to show the black hole’s powerful gravitational pull stripping matter from nearby stars.

Made by a giant radio telescope array near Socorro, New Mexico, the images also show floating debris surrounding the hole, thought to be the remnants of consumed suns.

Dr Ron Ekers, director of Australia Telescope’s eight linked radio telescope dishes, and one of the astronomers who produced the image, said on Friday that the images were the closest scientists had come to confirming such a gravitational monster exists in our Milky Way galaxy.

“For our galaxy this is a very dramatic and energetic thing that is going on,” he told Reuters. “But by the standards of the monsters we’ve seen elsewhere in the universe, it is very modest.”

The galaxy’s centre, 25,000 light years from Earth, has long been suspected to hold a large black hole. Black holes are space anomalies, created by a collapsing star, and are so powerful they can bend light beams.

Since the centre of the galaxy is not clearly visible to the eye due to an enormous amount of surrounding dust and gas, the astronomers photographed it at high radio frequencies.

The resulting image shows a spout of high energy, equal to 10 million suns, blowing out from the black hole. The spout resembles those found on the edge of other black holes.

Ekers reached the findings with the help of astronomers Farhad Yusef-Zadeh of Chicago’s Northwestern University and Mark Morris of the University of California.

Based on the energy levels the group recorded, Ekers estimates the black hole has devoured a million stars since the universe was formed 15 billion years ago.