Swarming stars in the galactic core

Astronomers are pretty much convinced that there's a super-massive black hole at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. (Just writing that sentence reminds me about how quickly opinions can change in science – years ago people doubted the existence of black holes, much less even imagined that they could come in a super massive variety.)

The reason for this belief is not theory. It's experimental data. Check out the AMAZING video of 15 years worth of stellar observations of the galactic core. (Much of the data comes from the new adaptive optical telescopes on Mt. Keck in Hawaii.)

Some of the stars in that video are O and A class main sequence stars – which means they're many time more massive than the Sun. And the galactic core is playing catch with those stars making them orbit with a period of 15 years or less.

There's no way to get that sort of orbital behavior without putting something very very massive at the core. Like something with a mass of millions of suns. And there's no way for something so massive to be able to exist in a normal space. The self-gravity of such an object is so strong that it would immediately collapse on itself and disappear into a singularity. A black hole.

Observational evidence of a black hole. I can't tell you how amazing that is to me.

Author: Nick Knisely

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...

2 thoughts on “Swarming stars in the galactic core”

  1. That is a fascinating video. I am aware that this will reveal my complete lack of knowledge about astronomy, but what makes those stars orbit and shoot out the other side or “bounce off” the black hole area? Why do they not collide into the super-massive gravitational area?

  2. Matt, the stars are not “bouncing off” the black hole, it just looks that way for some of them because their orbits are very elliptical. All orbits are elliptical but some (like the Earth around the sun) are closer to being circular (a circle is simply a special case of an ellipse). They do not fall into the black hole for the same reason that the Earth does not fall into the sun–their velocity keeps them in an orbit that does not take them close enough to the black hole to reach the “event horizon.” A black hole itself does not have a physical extent, but the “event horizon” is the distance from the black hole at which everything, even light, is captured by the hole’s gravity. Even though the black hole has a mass of several million suns, its event horizon is smaller than the Earth’s orbit around the sun. At the scale of the video picture, that would just be a minuscule dot at the center.

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