November 22, 2012
NuSTAR Shows Black Hole Eating Thanksgiving Snack
[ Watch the Video: The Diner at the Center of the Galaxy ]
Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe OnlineNASA's NuSTAR spacecraft has detected the Milky Way's central black hole eating a Thanksgiving snack.
Supermassive black holes like the one in the middle of our galaxy sustain themselves by swallowing stars, planets, asteroids, comets and clouds of gas that wander around the galaxy.
The space agency's new spacecraft allowed it to take an observation of the black hole siphoning gas off a giant star companion. It is the only telescope capable of producing focused images of the highest-energy X-rays produced by dying stars and ravenous black holes.
"It's like putting on a new pair of glasses and seeing aspects of the world around us clearly for the first time," said Fiona Harrison, the mission's principal investigator at the California Institute of Technology. "We got lucky and captured an outburst from the black hole during our [first] observing campaign."
NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and infrared data from the Keck telescopes in Hawaii helped to confirm the outburst.
The space agency said the observations raises hope that astronomers will be able to solve why the Milky Way's black hole is such a picky eater. Most black holes feast, but astronomers have noticed that our own black hole simply eats snacks.
One model shows that trillions of asteroids surround the Milky Way's core, and these space rocks could be the black hole's main food source.
Astronomers using the Chandra X-ray Observatory have detected flares consistent with asteroids 6 miles wide or larger falling into the black hole. Smaller asteroids could be being consumed as well, but their flares would be too small to detect.
NuSTAR, which launched on June 13, 2012, has an unprecedented ability to detect and make focused images of X-ray flares, according to NASA. This instrument will help astronomers better understand what is happening in the center of the Milky Way.