There's an enormous black hole at the heart of our galaxy, and researchers believe it's far more powerful than previously imagined. In fact, new black hole research by way of the Astrophysical Journal indicates that the celestial body was responsible for a massive explosion that could have occurred as recently as 3.5 million years ago. To put that in perspective, some of humans' most ancient ancestors were already walking the earth at the time. It appears the supermassive black hole may not be as dormant as what research had previously suggested.
A supermassive black hole is the biggest classification of black hole, which could theoretically contain the mass of hundreds of thousands or even billions of the Solar System's sun. Scientists have named the one in the middle of our galaxy Sagittarius A* or Sgr A8. It's about 26,000 light-years from Earth, and scientists have spent many hours observing it the best they could, despite the fact that no visible light could ever escape the black hole's pull. Researchers instead observe gases near the hole via the infrared spectrum.
New research suggests that the black hole produced a massive explosion that ended up sending radiation shooting throughout the galaxy and even further. This explosion was likely the fault of powerful nuclear activity, and ended up stretching all the way to the river of gas known as the Magellanic Stream, about 200,000 light-years away from the Milky Way.
The new study that analyzes the explosion's impact (which has yet to be peer-reviewed) could end up "dramatically" changing the way scientists study and understand the Milky Way, according to study co-author Magda Guglielmo.
"We always thought about our galaxy as an inactive galaxy, with a not so bright center. These new results instead open the possibility of a complete reinterpretation of its evolution and nature," explained Guglielmo in a press release. Researchers estimate that the explosion's blade could have lasted a lengthy 300,000 years. While a blip on the overall human timeline, for any of our ancient ancestors, the massive lights and explosions in the sky would have lasted lifetimes and lifetimes, as hard as that may be to fathom.
Earlier this year, the supermassive black hole suddenly flashed as brightly as scientists had ever observed in over 20 years of constant study, and twice as brightly as any black hole that had ever been previously recorded. It's still unclear what caused the flash, but it was so radiant that astronomer Tuan Do mistook it first for a star.
It's unclear exactly what's going on at the center of the galaxy with the huge black hole, but something big clearly was all those years ago. The intermittent activity that scientists are still able to observe is still something widely being explored.
"We don't understand why this activity is intermittent, but it has something to do with how material gets dumped onto the black hole," wrote astronomer Joss Bland-Hawthorn in the original research paper. "It might be like water droplets on a hot plate that sputter and explode chaotically, depending on their size."
Scientists are still deeply involved when it comes to getting to the bottom of the mysteries of the universe, but the black hole at the center of our galaxy is certainly still one of the most baffling.