“The center of the galaxy is where extreme astrophysics occurs — the X-sports of astrophysics.”
If that description of the black hole at the center of the Milky Way doesn’t get more young students interested in astrophysics, nothing will. Andrea Ghez, UCLA’s Lauren B. Leichtman and Arthur E. Levine Professor of Astrophysics and director of the UCLA Galactic Center Group, used those words in a press release to describe a new discovery concerning Sagittarius A* — the supermassive black hole that the rest of the Milky Way revolves around and tries to avoid being sucked into. Unfortunately (well, not for the black hole), Ghez and her team have discovered four mysterious objects that may belong to a new class that will soon (in space terms) be a lost class.
“One of the things that has gotten everyone excited about the G objects is that the stuff that gets pulled off of them by tidal forces as they sweep by the central black hole must inevitably fall into the black hole. When that happens, it might be able to produce an impressive fireworks show since the material eaten by the black hole will heat up and emit copious radiation before it disappears across the event horizon.”
Mark Morris, UCLA professor of physics and astronomy and co-author with Ghez of the new study published in the journal Nature, sounds equally excited as he describes the discovery of G3, G4, G5 and G6 – strange objects joining G1 and G2 in orbit around Sagittarius A*. Ghez also discovered G1 and both were puzzling because they “look like gas and behave like stars.” The new four also appear to be the same but have very different orbits. Ghez now believes that all of this strange behavior and appearance is due to these G-objects once being binary stars that have been forcefully merged together as they approach the supermassive black hole.
“Mergers of stars may be happening in the universe more often than we thought, and likely are quite common. Black holes may be driving binary stars to merge. It’s possible that many of the stars we’ve been watching and not understanding may be the end product of mergers that are calm now.”
“Blame the black hole” could become the new catch-all excuse for strange occurrences around the universe, but in this case it sounds plausible. Of course, everything is ultimately about us, so Ghez addresses the inevitable question of how this discovery will affect Earth – even though our Sun isn’t a binary.
“The Earth is in the suburbs compared to the center of the galaxy, which is some 26,000 light-years away.”
That sounds somewhat comforting … except discoveries like these keep making the universe seem smaller and supermassive black holes, wandering black holes, supernovas and other destructive space objects and events seem so much closer. Perhaps it’s inescapable (just like the gravity of Sagittarius A*) that young astrophysicists will continue to make these kinds of discoveries and scare us with more stories of the extreme sports X-sports going on int the not-so-distant supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way.