Precise Insights into the Supermassive Black Hole in the Milky Way’s Heart
Astronomers use Gemini Observatory and an international telescope collaboration to shed light on Sagittarius A*
Obtained with the help of the Gemini North telescope, astronomers have made the most precise measurements yet of the motions of stars around the supermassive
Astronomers have measured more precisely than ever before the position and velocity of four stars in the immediate vicinity of Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*), the supermassive black hole that lurks at the center of the Milky Way. The motions of these stars — called S2, S29, S38, and S55 — were found to follow paths that shows that the mass in the center of the Milky Way is almost entirely due to the Sgr A* black hole, leaving very little room for anything else.
The research team used a variety of cutting-edge astronomical facilities in this research. To measure the velocities of the stars, they used spectroscopy from the Gemini Near Infrared Spectrograph (GNIRS) at Gemini North near the summit of Maunakea in Hawai‘i, part of the international Gemini Observatory, a program of NSF’s NOIRLab, and the SINFONI instrument on the European Southern Observatory’s
“We are very grateful to Gemini Observatory, whose GNIRS instrument gave us the critical information we needed,” said Reinhard Genzel, director of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics and co-recipient of the 2020 Nobel Prize in physics. “This research shows worldwide collaboration at its best.”
The Galactic Center of the Milky Way, located roughly 27,000 light-years from the Sun, contains the compact radio source Sgr A* that astronomers have identified as a supermassive black hole 4.3 million times as massive as the Sun. Despite decades of painstaking observations — and the Nobel Prize awarded for discovering the identity of Sgr A* — it has been difficult to conclusively prove that the majority of this mass belongs only to the supermassive black hole and does not also include a vast amount of matter such as stars, smaller black holes, interstellar dust and gas, or dark matter.
“With the 2020 Nobel prize in physics awarded for the confirmation that Sgr A* is indeed a black hole, we now want to go further. We would like to understand whether there is anything else hidden at the center of the Milky Way, and whether general relativity is indeed the correct theory of gravity in this extreme laboratory,” explained Stefan Gillessen, one of the astronomers involved in this work. “The most straightforward way to answer that question is to closely follow the orbits of stars passing close to Sgr A*.”
Einstein’s general theory of relativity predicts that the orbits of stars around a supermassive compact object are subtly different from those predicted by classical Newtonian physics. In particular, general relativity predicts that the orbits of the stars will trace out an elegant rosette shape — an effect known as Schwarzschild precession. To actually see stars tracing out this rosette, the team tracked the position and velocity of four stars in the immediate vicinity of Sgr A* — called S2, S29, S38, and S55. The team’s observations of the extent to which these stars precessed allowed them to infer the distribution of mass within Sgr A*. They discovered that any extended mass within the orbit of the S2 star contributes at most the equivalent of 0.1% of the mass of the supermassive black hole.
Animated sequence of
“We will improve our sensitivity even further in future, allowing us to track even fainter objects,” concluded Gillessen. “We hope to detect more than we see now, giving us a unique and unambiguous way to measure the rotation of the black hole.”
Zooming into the heart of the Milky Way to see stars as observed by the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (the last observation being from 2019). Zooming further in reveals stars even closer to the black hole, observed with the GRAVITY instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope Interferometry in mid-2021.
“The Gemini observatories continue to deliver new insight into the nature of our galaxy and the enormous black hole at its center,” said Martin Still, Gemini Program Officer at the National Science Foundation. “Further instrument development during the next decade intended for broad use will maintain NOIRLab’s leadership in the characterization of the Universe around us.”
For more on this research, see Watch Stars Race Around the Milky Way’s Supermassive Black Hole.
- Sagittarius A* is spoken as “Sagittarius A star.”
- ESO’s VLT is composed of four individual colocated 8.2-meter telescopes which can combine light through a network of mirrors and underground tunnels using a technique known as interferometry, to form the VLTI. GRAVITY uses this technique to measure the position of night-sky objects with high
The team behind this result is composed of The GRAVITY Collaboration, R. Abuter (European Southern Observatory), A. Amorim (Universidade de Lisboa and CENTRA – Centro de Astrofísica e Gravitação), M. Bauböck (Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics and University of Illinois), J. P. Berger (University Grenoble Alpes and European Southern Observatory), H. Bonnet (European Southern Observatory), G. Bourdarot (University Grenoble Alpes and Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics), V. Cardoso (CENTRA – Centro de Astrofísica e Gravitação and
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