Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, May 4, 2023

Blowing bubbles

After Monday's post, about the bizarre hypergiant star Stephenson 2-18, a reader commented, "If you think that's weird, look up 'Fermi bubbles.'"

So I did.  And... yeah.

Discovered back in 2010, the Fermi bubbles -- so named because they were discovered by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Telescope -- are a pair of nearly perfectly symmetrical bubbles of high-intensity gamma rays positioned above and below the galactic plane of the Milky Way.  They're huge; each one has a diameter of about 23,000 light years.

False-color image of the Fermi bubbles.  The Milky Way is seen edge-on, running across the middle of the photograph.  [Image is in the Public Domain courtesy of NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center]

Back in 2015, the Fermi bubbles were still completely unexplained, and in fact made #1 in Astronomy magazine's list of "The Fifty Weirdest Objects in the Universe."  That they had something to do with Sagittarius A*, the enormous black hole at the center of the galaxy, seemed like a reasonable guess; but what could create something with such a peculiar figure-eight shape was unknown.

A team led by astrophysicist Rongmon Bordoloi of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, however, has a model to explain them.  Something around nine million years ago -- not really that far back, in the grand scheme of things -- Sagittarius A* pulled in an enormous cloud of gas and dust.  The origin of that dust cloud is uncertain, but what happened after it got caught is all too clear.  Most of it undoubtedly took the one way trip past the event horizon, but some of it was spun so fast by the black hole's rotation and the resultant twisting of space-time that it gained enough momentum to escape along Sagittarius A*'s spin axis -- i.e., perpendicular to the galactic plane.

This not only accelerated the gas to an unimaginable two million miles an hour, it heated it -- at its edges to just shy of ten thousand degrees C, and near the point of outflow to almost ten million degrees.  It's this heating that caused it to produce gamma rays, which is how the structure was detected.

Not a phenomenon you'd want to be standing in the way of.

"We have traced the outflows of other galaxies, but we have never been able to actually map the motion of the gas," Bordoloi said, somehow resisting adding, and holy shit, this thing is amazing.  "The only reason we could do it here is because we are inside the Milky Way.  This vantage point gives us a front-row seat to map out the kinematic structure of the Milky Way outflow."

And, along the way, to figure out what's going on with the number one Weirdest Object in the Universe.  Having an explanation doesn't make it any less impressive, of course.  Gas at a temperature of ten million degrees being flung about at two million miles per hour by a ginormous black hole isn't exactly a cause for a shoulder-shrug.

Besides, there are forty-nine more weird objects (at least) left to explain.  If you're into science, it means you'll never be bored.


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