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Black Hole Activity in Distant Galaxy Preview to Event to Take Place in the Milky Way [VIDEO]

Apr 02, 2013 04:23 PM EDT
Black hole
Early black holes heated up the gas in universe much later than believed. Researchers say that radio telescopes wanting to see the origin of the universe might have to account for the delays in this "cosmic heating".
(Photo : REUTERS/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Handout )

Scientists watched as a black hole woke up from a decades-long slumber for a midnight snack - perhaps a brown dwarf or a giant planet.

The event, which took place 47 million light-years away, was discovered by the European Space Agency's (ESA) Integral space observatory and was quickly followed by XMM-Newton, NASA's Swift and Japan's MAXI X-ray monitor on the International Space Station.

The discovery was made when astronomers were using Integral to study a different galaxy when they noticed a bright X-ray flare coming form another location, according to a report on the ESA's website. Scientists were then able to use XMM-Newton to identify the origin of the light as the galaxy NGC 4845, representing the first time this particular galaxy has ever been detected at high energies.

Overall, the galaxy brightened by a degree of a thousand, consequently taking a year to subside.

"The observation was completely unexpected, from a galaxy that has been quiet for at least 20 - 30 years," Marek Nikolajuk of the University of Bialystock, Poland said regarding the findings. Nikolajuk was the lead author of the paper published in Astronomy and Astrophysics that reported on the discovery.

An analysis of the flare revealed that the emission came from a halo of material around the black hole that occurred as it "tore apart and fed on an object of 14 - 30 Jupiter masses," states the ESA report. 

However, lower ends of the estimate place it just a few times larger than the gas giant.

As it turns out, the event so closely watched and analyzed by scientists around the globe may in fact serve as a preview for what is to occur much closer to home: the black hole at the center of the Milky Way is currently on schedule to consume a passing gas cloud later this year, according to Popular Science.

Astronomers hope to snag a front-row view of the occasion through the Atacama Large Milimeter/submilimeter Array (ALMA) - a telescope with 66 radio antennae that enables it to detect even faint and distant material.

"People have been working the optical, and they can trace the motion," astronomer Paul Ho from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center told Popular Science reporter Rebecca Boyle. "You can actually see stars moving around the center of the black hole system in the Milky Way, and in their measurement of the stars, they notice a blob of gas which is moving ... We are very excited about that; we can see it."


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