Last gorge for galaxy’s central black hole gauged

Milky Way monster was 100 million times more active 2 million years ago

BIG JET The galaxy's central supermassive black hole (illustrated here with a polar jet) was once millions of times more powerful than it is today.

NASA/Dana Berry/SkyWorks Digital

About two million years ago, the supermassive black hole at the Milky Way’s center went on a feeding frenzy. It was the galactic core’s last big gorge, and it left behind a fiery flare that astronomers can still see evidence of today.

That glimmer comes from the Magellanic Stream. In this lacy gas filament, ultraviolet light splits hydrogen atoms into protons and electrons. When those particles recombine, the electrons give off a signature glow called an H-alpha emission. Stars in the Milky Way don’t produce enough light to account for this glow, and the stars never have.

That fact led a team of astronomers to conclude that the glow represents a relic of a past eruption from the black hole at the galactic center. The relic light suggests that about two million years ago, the black hole was 100 million times more powerful than it is today, the team suggests.

The researchers presented the results September 24 at the Galaxy Zoo meeting in Sydney. A paper describing the results will also appear in an upcoming issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

photo of Ashley Yeager

Ashley Yeager is the associate news editor at Science News. She has worked at The Scientist, the Simons Foundation, Duke University and the W.M. Keck Observatory, and was the web producer for Science News from 2013 to 2015. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.

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