First black hole discovered in Milky Way has had a violent outburst

16 Mar 2016

Illustration of matter circling a black hole. Image via NASA/ESA

In a galaxy rather close to home – our own Milky Way, in fact – a black hole has been seen having a violent outburst seen as a series of dazzling red flashes.

The black hole designated V404 Cygnus, located approximately 7,800 light years away from Earth, is best known for being the first black hole discovered within our own galaxy and, due to its proximity, astronomers are able to see its major events in considerable detail.

The only problem is that, typically, major events are unpredictable and rapid by nature, leaving little time for astronomers to turn their gaze towards it.

Now, however, an international team of astronomers led by the University of Southampton (US) has been able to spot a major eruption of matter from within the black hole, something which hasn’t been seen in nearly 30 years.

According to Science Daily, this latest eruption first seen in June last year was seen as a series of dazzling, powerful red jets much brighter than many typically seen elsewhere in the known universe.

More powerful than 1,000 suns

The flashes recorded during this most recent outburst, in fact, were so powerful that each of these bursts had the same power output of around 1,000 suns, lasting just a 40th of a second.

The unusual nature and sheer power of this series of violent outbursts is considered a treasure trove for astronomers, particularly the team that led the discovery.

Speculating as to why V404 Cygnus suddenly decided to violently eject matter, Dr Poshak Gandhi, associate professor and STFC Ernest Rutherford Fellow in the University of Southampton’s Astronomy Group, said: “We speculate that when the black hole was being rapidly force-fed by its companion orbiting star, it reacted violently by spewing out some of the material as a fast-moving jet.

“The duration of these flashing episodes could be related to the switching on and off of the jet, seen for the first time in detail.”

Following this event, the astronomical community, Gandhi says, has been greatly motivated to coordinate worldwide efforts to observe future outbursts.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic