Press release: 7th May 2013
Astronomers using Europe’s Herschel Space Observatory have spotted a cloud of incredibly hot gas very close to the supermassive black hole that lies at the heart of our Milky Way galaxy.
The supermassive black hole goes by the name of Sagittarius A*, and weighs in at 4 million times the mass of our Sun. It is nearly 30,000 light years away at the very centre of our galaxy, but is still hundreds of times closer than other such black holes, which are usually found at the centres of large galaxies.
Its relative proximity makes it the ideal target for studying these extreme environments in detail, though our view is often obscured by dense clouds of dust draped throughout the Milky Way. By studying it in far-infrared light, Herschel can see through this dust and examine the surroundings of the black hole itself. The black hole is surrounded by a ring of gas around 30 light years across, but right in the centre is a mini spiral of gas flowing inwards.
Herschel observations taken in 2011 and 2012 allowed astronomers to examine the region within around a light year of the black hole itself. The data showed the presence of elements such as carbon, nitrogen and oxygen, as well as simple molecules including water, carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide.
“Herschel has resolved the far-infrared emission within just 1 light-year of the black hole, making it possible for the first time at these wavelengths to separate emission due to the central cavity from that of the surrounding dense molecular disc,” says Javier Goicoechea of the Centro de Astrobiología, Spain, who led this particular study.
Herschel showed that some of the material in the inner spiral is moving incredibly quickly, at speeds of over 300 km/s (1 million km per hour), and must be very close to the black hole itself – possibly on the verge of falling in.
The ring of material (blue) around the central black hole, as seen by Herschel, surrounds a spiral of gas (orange) seen here by radio telescopes. Also shown is the spectrum towards the very centre at far-infrared wavelengths seen by Herschel's instruments. The spikes in the spectrum are due to a range of simple molecules, such as carbon monoxide (CO), water vapour (H2O), ammonia (NH), hydrogen fluoride (HF), hydrogen cyanide (HCN) and other combinations of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms. These data show that some of the gas is incredibly hot, at temperatures up to 1000 Celsius.
Credit: Radio image: NRAO/VLA/C.Lang; Spectrum: ESA/Herschel/SPIRE/PACS/J R Goicoechea et al (2013)
“The observations are consistent with streamers of hot gas speeding towards Sgr A*, falling towards the very centre of the Galaxy,” says Dr Goicoechea. “Our Galaxy’s black hole may be cooking its dinner right in front of Herschel’s eyes.”
But what really took astronomers by surprise was the temperature of the gas, reaching temperatures of 1000 Celsius in places – much hotter than most interstellar material which is at temperatures of −200 Celsius or below.
Some of the heating is due to intense light from nearby stars, as well as from very hot material very close to the black hole itself, but the team has calculated that this can only account for a relatively small temperature increase. The most likely cause is that intense shockwaves and turbulence, possibly due to fast-moving gas from young stars, heat up the material as it is thrown around.
This research used data from the spectrometers that are part of Herschel’s SPIRE and PACS instruments. “These instruments can identify the emission from specific types of atoms and molecules out in space,” explained Edward Polehampton, of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, and a member of the SPIRE spectrometer team. “Such detailed analysis has only been possible thanks to Herschel being in space, well away from the obscuring effects of the Earth’s atmosphere”.
Herschel finished its scientific observations in April 2013, when its supply of liquid helium coolant was exhausted. “This is a fascinating study with Herschel of what goes on right at the centres of galaxies. Even though Herschel has now finished observing, there’s still a huge amount of work to be done,” commented Matt Griffin, of Cardiff University and lead scientist of the SPIRE instrument. “Over the next few years, as we process the full archive of Herschel data, we know there will be many more results like this”.
Notes for editors
“Herschel Far-Infrared Spectroscopy of the Galactic Center. Hot Molecular Gas: Shocks versus Radiation near Sgr A∗” by J.R. Goicoechea et al., is published in Astrophysical Journal Letters, 7 May 2013.
The study focuses on a spectral scan towards Sgr A∗ at wavelengths of approximately 52–671 microns taken with the PACS and SPIRE spectrometers, and is part of the PRISMAS (PRobing InterStellar Molecules with Absorption line Studies) and SPECHIS (SPIRE Spectral Line Surveys of HIFI-GT-KP Sources) Herschel Guaranteed-Time Programmes.
PACS spectra between 52 microns and 190 microns were obtained during March 2011 and March 2012. SPIRE observations between 194 microns and 671 microns were obtained during February 2011.
Herschel is an ESA space observatory with science instruments provided by European-led Principal Investigator consortia and with important participation from NASA. The mission launched on 14 May 2009 and completed science observations on 29 April 2013.
The SPIRE instrument contains an imaging photometer (camera) and an imaging spectrometer. The camera operates in three wavelength bands centred on 250, 350 and 500 μm, and so can make images of the sky simultaneously in three sub-millimetre colours. To do this, the instrument is cooled to 0.3 degrees above absolute zero. The SPIRE instrument has been built, assembled and tested in the UK at The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire by an international consortium from Europe, US, Canada and China, with strong support from the Science and Technology Facilities Council.
SPIRE has been developed by a consortium of institutes led by Cardiff Univ. (UK) and including: Univ. Lethbridge (Canada); NAOC (China); CEA, LAM (France); IFSI, Univ. Padua (Italy); IAC (Spain); Stockholm Observatory (Sweden); Imperial College London, RAL, UCL-MSSL, UKATC, Univ. Sussex (UK); and Caltech, JPL, NHSC, Univ. Colorado (USA). This development has been supported by national funding agencies: CSA (Canada); NAOC (China); CEA, CNES, CNRS (France); ASI (Italy); MCINN (Spain); SNSB (Sweden); STFC, UKSA (UK); and NASA (USA).
PACS is also an imaging photometer (camera) and an imaging spectrometer. The camera operates in three bands centred on 70, 100, and 160 μm, respectively. PACS has been developed by a consortium of institutes led by MPE (Germany) and including UVIE (Austria); KUL, CSL, IMEC (Belgium); CEA, OAMP (France); MPIA (Germany); IFSI, OAP/AOT, OAA/CAISMI, LENS, SISSA (Italy); IAC (Spain). This development has been supported by the funding agencies BMVIT (Austria), ESA- PRODEX (Belgium), CEA/CNES (France), DLR (Germany), ASI (Italy), and CICT/MCT (Spain).
UK Space Agency
The UK Space Agency is at the heart of UK efforts to explore and benefit from space. It is responsible for all strategic decisions on the UK civil space programme and provides a clear, single voice for UK space ambitions.
The UK Space Agency is responsible for ensuring that the UK retains and grows a strategic capability in the space-based systems, technologies, science and applications. It leads the UK’s civil space programme in order to win sustainable economic growth, secure new scientific knowledge and provide benefits to all citizens.
The UK Space Agency:
- Co-ordinates UK civil space activity
- Encourages academic research
- Supports the UK space industry
- Raises the profile of UK space activities at home and abroad
- Increases understanding of space science and its practical benefits
- Inspires our next generation of UK scientists and engineers
- Licences the launch and operation of UK spacecraft
- Promotes co-operation and participation in the European Space programme
Dr Javier R. Goicoechea
Centro de Astrobiologia CSIC-INTA, Spain
Tel: +34 91 520 6422
Dr Ed Polehampton
Rutherford Appleton Laboratory
Tel: +44 (0)1235 445047
Prof Matt Griffin
Tel: +44 (0)2920 874203
Dr Chris North
UK Herschel Outreach Officer
Tel: +44 (0)2920 870537
UK Space Agency
Tel: +44 (0)1793 418 069
For more information please contact:
RAL Space Enquiries