NASA Investigating Massive X-Ray Flare from Black Hole at the Center of Milky Way

The X-ray flare from Sagittarius A* is the largest ever observed coming from the supermassive black hole. (PHOTO CREDIT: NASA/CXC/Stanford/I. Zhuravleva et al.)

As you might know, the Milky Way Galaxy, in which we are all floating, has a black hole with a mass 4.5 million times bigger than that of our sun at its very center. So, when NASA says a documented occurrence in that vast pit of darkness “raises questions about the behavior of this giant black hole and its surrounding environment,” I get a little nervous.

Fortunately, the observation they’re talking about is little cause for alarm. What happened is that back in September of 2013, the Chandra X-Ray space observatory recorded an X-ray flare from the center of the Milky Way’s black hole (a vortex known as Sagittarius A*, or Sgr A*) that was 400 times brighter than the energy usually emitted from the area. You can see the flare in the image above. NASA is presenting this documentation at the 225th meeting of the American Astronomical Society, slated in Seattle this week.

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What caused the outburst from the usually quiet region of our galaxy? NASA has two theories.

First is that an asteroid wandered too close to the black hole and got ripped apart by the hole’s extreme gravitational force. Before the asteroid crossed over the hole’s event horizon (or point of no return), the debris it produced got superheated and released the X-rays.

“If an asteroid was torn apart, it would go around the black hole for a couple of hours — like water circling an open drain — before falling in,” said researcher Fred Baganoff of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in a statement. “That’s just how long we saw the brightest X-ray flare last, so that is an intriguing clue for us to consider.”

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Michael Franco

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