Astronomers have found evidence of this activity in a supermassive black hole at the heart of the Milky Way.
The black hole, which is 4 million times the mass of our Sun, contains the remains of flame-like material from an explosion that occurred several thousand years ago.
As black holes use their gravity to pull material inward, interstellar gas and dust circulates in the so-called accretion disk around the black hole. This rapidly spinning material heats up and explodes away from the black hole in jets that shoot through space at nearly the speed of light, accompanied by radiation.
While our galaxy’s black hole is often silent, it sometimes unleashes activity, such as cosmic burps and hiccups, as it devours stars and clouds of gas.
In 2013, researchers using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Jansky Very Large Array Telescope in New Mexico detected X-rays and radio waves, indicating that an aircraft was spewing through gas near the black hole.
This prompted Gerald Cecil, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to wonder if another jet was radiating from the black hole in another direction.
Data from ground and space telescopes, including the Hubble Space Telescope, mainly showed a glowing invisible hot gas bubble about 35 light-years from the black hole, as well as an expanding gas knot not far away, just 15 light-years away.
When the jets hit clouds of gas in the galaxy, the clouds respond to heat by expanding. Substances in gas clouds cause the jet to bend and split into streams.
“Rivers seep from the Milky Way’s dense disk of gas,” Alex Wagner, co-author of the study and assistant professor at the University of Tsukuba in Japan, said in a statement. “The current from the beam of a pencil is divided into tendrils, like an octopus.”
These flows created a series of expanding gas bubbles spanning at least 500 light-years, a daisy chain that allows researchers to reconstruct past events.
“Just like in archeology, you dig and find artifacts, ancient and ancient, until you come across the remains of a great civilization,” Cecil said.
When Wagner and Cecil used computer models of aircraft in the Milky Way, they were able to reproduce data from telescopes.
Cecil said the black hole at the center of our galaxy is “now out of order.” But if the plane regains power, the jet will likely ignite again, and astronomers can track how far the plane can go, he said.
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