12 September 2013

Aircraft Telescope Images Ring Of Dust Surrounding Black Hole

Image Credit: Thinkstock.com

Astronomers using a telescope attached to a modified Boeing 747SP aircraft have captured new images of a ring of gas and dust seven light-years in diameter surrounding the super-massive black hole at the center of the Milky Way.

The team used NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) to capture images of our galaxy’s circumnuclear ring (CNR), as well as a neighboring cluster of extremely luminous young stars known as the quintuplet cluster (QC).

The mid-infrared image of the CNR shows off bright Y-shaped features believed to be material falling from the ring toward the black hole that is located where the arms of the “Y” intersect. The neighboring cluster is located about 100 light years away from the galaxy’s nucleus.

“Something big happened in the Milky Way’s center within the past 4 to 6 million years which resulted in several bursts of star formation, creating the Quintuplet Cluster, the Central Cluster, and one other massive star cluster,” said Matt Hankins of the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. “Many other galaxies also have so-called ‘starbursts‘ in their central regions, some associated with central black holes, some not. The Milky Way’s center is much nearer than other galaxies, making it easier for us to explore possible connections between the starbursts and the black hole.”

Ryan Lau of Cornell University said that the focus of their study was to determine the structure of the circumnuclear ring with the best precision possible using SOFIA.

“Using these data we can learn about the processes that accelerate and heat the ring,” Lau said.

The nucleus of the Milky Way contains a black hole with four million times the mass of the sun. It is orbited by a large disk of gas and dust. A ring seen in one of the images is the inner edge of that disk.

The combination of SOFIA’s airborne telescope with the Faint Object Infrared Camera for the SOFIA Telescope (FORCAST) has helped produce the sharpest images of these regions ever obtained at mid-infrared wavelengths.

“The resolution and spatial coverage of these images is astounding, showing what modern infrared detector arrays can do when flown on SOFIA,” said SOFIA Chief Scientific Advisor Eric Becklin. “We hope to use these data to substantially advance our understanding of the environment near a supermassive black hole.”

Image Below: SOFIA/FORCAST mid-infrared image of the Milky Way galaxy’s nucleus showing the Circumnuclear Ring (CNR) of gas and dust clouds orbiting a central supermassive black hole. The bright Y-shaped feature is believed to be material falling from the ring toward the black hole that is located where the arms of the “Y” intersect. Credit: NASA/SOFIA/FORCAST team/Lau et al.

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