The quiescent monster at the center of the Milky Way—a supermassive black hole weighing about four million sun—used to be a lot more active.
Ghostly jets seen streaming from Milky Way’s core
Astronomers have found the best evidence yet that the dormant gravitational monster that lies at the centre of the Milky Way — a supermassive black hole known as Sagittarius A* — recently emitted a pair of γ-ray jets.
As they feed on stars and clouds of gas that stray too close, black holes at the centres of other galaxies create bright jets that can be seen across cosmic distances. But the Milky Way’s black hole shows no signs of such activity. Now, the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope has picked up some faint γ-ray signals that suggest that Sagittarius A* has not always been so tranquil. The black hole could even have been active as recently as 20,000 years ago, after gulping down a gas cloud with a mass about 100 times that of the Sun, says Douglas Finkbeiner of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Not part of my Nature article, but interesting nonetheless, is that the jets—composed of gamma-ray emitting charged particles—could have inflated the bubbles. To do so, the “faint, pathetic jets” observed by Fermi would have had to be much brighter, and carried more energy, in the past, says Finkbeiner. “We infer that that most of the time over the last million years, the jets have been perhaps ten times as bright.”
He adds that Fermi does not see the jets within about 10,000 light-years of the galaxy’s center, an indication that Sagittarius A* switched off its activity some 20,000 to 30,000 years ago, assuming the jets travel at about one–third the speed of light.
The artist’s illustration below, which shows the jets going all the way to the Milky Way’s center, reflects how the jets used to appear, not how they appear now.