Galactic Center

Galactic Center

Discussion
Ask a question about 'Galactic Center'
Start a new discussion about 'Galactic Center'
Answer questions from other users
Full Discussion Forum
 
Encyclopedia
The Galactic Center is the rotational center of the Milky Way
Milky Way
The Milky Way is the galaxy that contains the Solar System. This name derives from its appearance as a dim un-resolved "milky" glowing band arching across the night sky...

 galaxy
Galaxy
A galaxy is a massive, gravitationally bound system that consists of stars and stellar remnants, an interstellar medium of gas and dust, and an important but poorly understood component tentatively dubbed dark matter. The word galaxy is derived from the Greek galaxias , literally "milky", a...

. It is located at a distance of 8.33±0.35 kpc (~27,000±1,000 ly
Light-year
A light-year, also light year or lightyear is a unit of length, equal to just under 10 trillion kilometres...

) from the Earth
Earth
Earth is the third planet from the Sun, and the densest and fifth-largest of the eight planets in the Solar System. It is also the largest of the Solar System's four terrestrial planets...

 in the direction of the constellation
Constellation
In modern astronomy, a constellation is an internationally defined area of the celestial sphere. These areas are grouped around asterisms, patterns formed by prominent stars within apparent proximity to one another on Earth's night sky....

s Sagittarius
Sagittarius (constellation)
Sagittarius is a constellation of the zodiac, the one containing the galactic center. Its name is Latin for the archer, and its symbol is , a stylized arrow. Sagittarius is commonly represented as a centaur drawing a bow...

, Ophiuchus, and Scorpius where the Milky Way appears brightest. It is believed that there is a supermassive black hole
Supermassive black hole
A supermassive black hole is the largest type of black hole in a galaxy, in the order of hundreds of thousands to billions of solar masses. Most, and possibly all galaxies, including the Milky Way, are believed to contain supermassive black holes at their centers.Supermassive black holes have...

 at the Galactic Center of the Milky Way
Milky Way
The Milky Way is the galaxy that contains the Solar System. This name derives from its appearance as a dim un-resolved "milky" glowing band arching across the night sky...

.

Proof of existence and location


Because of interstellar dust
Interstellar cloud
Interstellar cloud is the generic name given to an accumulation of gas, plasma and dust in our and other galaxies. Put differently, an interstellar cloud is a denser-than-average region of the interstellar medium. Depending on the density, size and temperature of a given cloud, the hydrogen in it...

 along the line of sight, the Galactic Center cannot be studied at visible
Visible spectrum
The visible spectrum is the portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to the human eye. Electromagnetic radiation in this range of wavelengths is called visible light or simply light. A typical human eye will respond to wavelengths from about 390 to 750 nm. In terms of...

, ultraviolet
Ultraviolet
Ultraviolet light is electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength shorter than that of visible light, but longer than X-rays, in the range 10 nm to 400 nm, and energies from 3 eV to 124 eV...

 or soft X-ray
X-ray
X-radiation is a form of electromagnetic radiation. X-rays have a wavelength in the range of 0.01 to 10 nanometers, corresponding to frequencies in the range 30 petahertz to 30 exahertz and energies in the range 120 eV to 120 keV. They are shorter in wavelength than UV rays and longer than gamma...

 wavelength
Wavelength
In physics, the wavelength of a sinusoidal wave is the spatial period of the wave—the distance over which the wave's shape repeats.It is usually determined by considering the distance between consecutive corresponding points of the same phase, such as crests, troughs, or zero crossings, and is a...

s. The available information about the Galactic Center comes from observations at gamma ray
Gamma ray
Gamma radiation, also known as gamma rays or hyphenated as gamma-rays and denoted as γ, is electromagnetic radiation of high frequency . Gamma rays are usually naturally produced on Earth by decay of high energy states in atomic nuclei...

, hard X-ray, infrared
Infrared
Infrared light is electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength longer than that of visible light, measured from the nominal edge of visible red light at 0.74 micrometres , and extending conventionally to 300 µm...

, sub-millimetre and radio
Radio Wave
Radio Wave may refer to:*Radio frequency*Radio Wave 96.5, a radio station in Blackpool, UK...

 wavelengths.

Coordinates of the Galactic Center were first found by Harlow Shapley
Harlow Shapley
Harlow Shapley was an American astronomer.-Career:He was born on a farm in Nashville, Missouri, and dropped out of school with only the equivalent of a fifth-grade education...

 in his 1918 study of the distribution of the globular cluster
Globular cluster
A globular cluster is a spherical collection of stars that orbits a galactic core as a satellite. Globular clusters are very tightly bound by gravity, which gives them their spherical shapes and relatively high stellar densities toward their centers. The name of this category of star cluster is...

s. In the Equatorial coordinate system
Equatorial coordinate system
The equatorial coordinate system is a widely-used method of mapping celestial objects. It functions by projecting the Earth's geographic poles and equator onto the celestial sphere. The projection of the Earth's equator onto the celestial sphere is called the celestial equator...

 they are: RA
Right ascension
Right ascension is the astronomical term for one of the two coordinates of a point on the celestial sphere when using the equatorial coordinate system. The other coordinate is the declination.-Explanation:...

 17h45m40.04s, Dec
Declination
In astronomy, declination is one of the two coordinates of the equatorial coordinate system, the other being either right ascension or hour angle. Declination in astronomy is comparable to geographic latitude, but projected onto the celestial sphere. Declination is measured in degrees north and...

 -29° 00' 28.1" (J2000 epoch
Epoch (astronomy)
In astronomy, an epoch is a moment in time used as a reference point for some time-varying astronomical quantity, such as celestial coordinates, or elliptical orbital elements of a celestial body, where these are subject to perturbations and vary with time...

).

Distance to the Galactic Center and bar


The exact distance from the Sun to the Galactic center is notoriously uncertain. The latest estimates from geometric-based methods and standard candle
Cosmic distance ladder
The cosmic distance ladder is the succession of methods by which astronomers determine the distances to celestial objects. A real direct distance measurement of an astronomical object is possible only for those objects that are "close enough" to Earth...

s yield distances to the Galactic center between 7.6-8.7 kpc (25,000-28,000 light years). The fact that the estimates span over 1 kpc (3262 ly) only underscores the true uncertainty associated with the distance to the Galactic center.

The nature of the Galaxy's bar which extends across the Galactic center is also actively debated, with estimates for its half-length and orientation spanning between 1-5 kpc (short or a long bar) and 10-50 degrees. Certain authors advocate that the Galaxy features two distinct bars, one nestled within the other. The bar is delineated by red clump stars (see also red giant
Red giant
A red giant is a luminous giant star of low or intermediate mass in a late phase of stellar evolution. The outer atmosphere is inflated and tenuous, making the radius immense and the surface temperature low, somewhere from 5,000 K and lower...

), however, RR Lyr variables do not trace a prominent Galactic bar. The bar may be surrounded by a ring called the "5-kpc ring" that contains a large fraction of the molecular hydrogen present in the galaxy, as well as most of the Milky Way's star formation
Star formation
Star formation is the process by which dense parts of molecular clouds collapse into a ball of plasma to form a star. As a branch of astronomy star formation includes the study of the interstellar medium and giant molecular clouds as precursors to the star formation process and the study of young...

 activity. Viewed from the Andromeda Galaxy
Andromeda Galaxy
The Andromeda Galaxy is a spiral galaxy approximately 2.5 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Andromeda. It is also known as Messier 31, M31, or NGC 224, and is often referred to as the Great Andromeda Nebula in older texts. Andromeda is the nearest spiral galaxy to the...

, it would be the brightest feature of our own galaxy.

Supermassive black hole



The complex astronomical radio source Sagittarius A
Sagittarius A
Sagittarius A is a complex radio source at the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way. It is located in the sky in the Sagittarius constellation...

 appears to be located almost exactly at the Galactic Center (approx. 18 hrs, -29 deg), and contains an intense compact radio source, Sagittarius A*, which coincides with a supermassive black hole
Supermassive black hole
A supermassive black hole is the largest type of black hole in a galaxy, in the order of hundreds of thousands to billions of solar masses. Most, and possibly all galaxies, including the Milky Way, are believed to contain supermassive black holes at their centers.Supermassive black holes have...

 at the center of our Galaxy. Accretion
Accretion (astrophysics)
In astrophysics, the term accretion is used for at least two distinct processes.The first and most common is the growth of a massive object by gravitationally attracting more matter, typically gaseous matter in an accretion disc. Accretion discs are common around smaller stars or stellar remnants...

 of gas onto the black hole
Black hole
A black hole is a region of spacetime from which nothing, not even light, can escape. The theory of general relativity predicts that a sufficiently compact mass will deform spacetime to form a black hole. Around a black hole there is a mathematically defined surface called an event horizon that...

, probably involving a disk
Accretion disc
An accretion disc is a structure formed by diffuse material in orbital motion around a central body. The central body is typically a star. Gravity causes material in the disc to spiral inward towards the central body. Gravitational forces compress the material causing the emission of...

 around it, would release energy to power the radio source, itself much larger than the black hole. The latter is too small to see with present instruments.

A study in 2008 which linked radio telescope
Radio telescope
A radio telescope is a form of directional radio antenna used in radio astronomy. The same types of antennas are also used in tracking and collecting data from satellites and space probes...

s in Hawaii, Arizona and California (Very Long Baseline Interferometry
Very Long Baseline Interferometry
Very Long Baseline Interferometry is a type of astronomical interferometry used in radio astronomy. It allows observations of an object that are made simultaneously by many telescopes to be combined, emulating a telescope with a size equal to the maximum separation between the telescopes.Data...

) measured the diameter of Sagittarius A* to be 0.3 AU
Astronomical unit
An astronomical unit is a unit of length equal to about or approximately the mean Earth–Sun distance....

 (44 million kilometers). For comparison, the Earth is 150 million kilometers
Astronomical unit
An astronomical unit is a unit of length equal to about or approximately the mean Earth–Sun distance....

 from the Sun
Sun
The Sun is the star at the center of the Solar System. It is almost perfectly spherical and consists of hot plasma interwoven with magnetic fields...

, and Mercury
Mercury (planet)
Mercury is the innermost and smallest planet in the Solar System, orbiting the Sun once every 87.969 Earth days. The orbit of Mercury has the highest eccentricity of all the Solar System planets, and it has the smallest axial tilt. It completes three rotations about its axis for every two orbits...

 is 46 million kilometers from the Sun at its perihelion.

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics
Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics
The Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics is a Max Planck Institute, located in Garching, near Munich, Germany.In 1991 the Max Planck Institute for Physics and Astrophysics split up into the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, the Max Planck Institute for Physics and the...

 in Germany using Chilean telescopes have confirmed the existence of a supermassive black hole
Supermassive black hole
A supermassive black hole is the largest type of black hole in a galaxy, in the order of hundreds of thousands to billions of solar masses. Most, and possibly all galaxies, including the Milky Way, are believed to contain supermassive black holes at their centers.Supermassive black holes have...

 at the galactic center. This black hole is on the order of 4 million solar masses.

Stellar population



The central parsec
Parsec
The parsec is a unit of length used in astronomy. It is about 3.26 light-years, or just under 31 trillion kilometres ....

 around Sagittarius A* contains thousands of star
Star
A star is a massive, luminous sphere of plasma held together by gravity. At the end of its lifetime, a star can also contain a proportion of degenerate matter. The nearest star to Earth is the Sun, which is the source of most of the energy on Earth...

s. Although most of them are old red main-sequence
Main sequence
The main sequence is a continuous and distinctive band of stars that appears on plots of stellar color versus brightness. These color-magnitude plots are known as Hertzsprung–Russell diagrams after their co-developers, Ejnar Hertzsprung and Henry Norris Russell...

 stars, the Galactic Center is also rich in massive stars. More than 100 OB
OB star
OB stars are hot, massive stars of spectral types O or B which form in loosely organized groups called OB associations. They are short lived, and thus don't move very far from where they were formed within their life. During their lifetime, they will emit copious amounts of ultraviolet radiation...

 and Wolf-Rayet stars have been identified there so far. They seem to have all been formed in a single star formation
Star formation
Star formation is the process by which dense parts of molecular clouds collapse into a ball of plasma to form a star. As a branch of astronomy star formation includes the study of the interstellar medium and giant molecular clouds as precursors to the star formation process and the study of young...

 event a few million years ago. The existence of these relatively young (though evolved) stars was a surprise to experts, who expected the tidal forces from the central black hole to prevent their formation. This paradox of youth is even more remarkable for stars that are on very tight orbits around Sagittarius A*, such as S2
S2 (star)
S2, also known as S0—2 , is a star that is located close to the radio source Sagittarius A*, orbiting it with an orbital period of 15.56 ± 0.35 years and a pericenter distance of 17 light hours — about 4 times the distance of Neptune from the Sun.Its changing apparent position has been...

. The scenarios invoked to explain this formation involve either star formation in a massive star cluster
Star cluster
Star clusters or star clouds are groups of stars. Two types of star clusters can be distinguished: globular clusters are tight groups of hundreds of thousands of very old stars which are gravitationally bound, while open clusters, more loosely clustered groups of stars, generally contain less than...

 offset from the Galactic Center that would have migrated to its current location once formed, or star formation within a massive, compact gas accretion disk around the central black-hole. It is interesting to note that most of these 100 young, massive stars seem to be concentrated within one (according to the UCLA group) or two (according to the MPE group) disks, rather than randomly distributed within the central parsec. This observation however does not allow definite conclusions to be drawn at this point.

Star formation does not seem to be occurring currently at the Galactic center, although the Circumnuclear Disk of molecular gas that orbits the Galactic center at two parsecs seems a fairly favorable site for star formation. Work presented in 2002 by Antony Stark and Chris Martin mapping the gas density in a 400 light year region around the galactic center has revealed an accumulating ring with a mass several million times that of the Sun
Sun
The Sun is the star at the center of the Solar System. It is almost perfectly spherical and consists of hot plasma interwoven with magnetic fields...

 and near the critical density for star formation
Star formation
Star formation is the process by which dense parts of molecular clouds collapse into a ball of plasma to form a star. As a branch of astronomy star formation includes the study of the interstellar medium and giant molecular clouds as precursors to the star formation process and the study of young...

. They predict that in approximately 200 million years there will be an episode of starburst
Starburst (astronomy)
In astronomy, starburst is a generic term to describe a region of space with an abnormally high rate of star formation. It is reserved for truly unusual objects....

 in the galactic center, with many stars forming rapidly and undergoing supernovae at a hundred times the current rate. The starburst may also be accompanied by the formation of galactic jets
Relativistic jet
Relativistic jets are extremely powerful jets of plasma which emerge from presumed massive objects at the centers of some active galaxies, notably radio galaxies and quasars. Their lengths can reach several thousand or even hundreds of thousands of light years...

 as matter falls into the central black hole
Black hole
A black hole is a region of spacetime from which nothing, not even light, can escape. The theory of general relativity predicts that a sufficiently compact mass will deform spacetime to form a black hole. Around a black hole there is a mathematically defined surface called an event horizon that...

. It is thought that the Milky Way undergoes a starburst
Starburst (astronomy)
In astronomy, starburst is a generic term to describe a region of space with an abnormally high rate of star formation. It is reserved for truly unusual objects....

 of this sort every 500 million years.

In addition to the "paradox of youth", there is also a "conundrum of old age" associated with the distribution of the old stars at the Galactic center. Theoretical models had predicted that the old stars—which far outnumber young stars—should have a steeply-rising density near the black hole, a so-called Bahcall-Wolf cusp. Instead, it was discovered in 2009 that the density of the old stars peaks at a distance of roughly 1/2 parsec from Sgr A*, then falls inward: instead of a dense cluster, there is a "hole" around the black hole. Several suggestions have been put forward to explain this puzzling observation, but none is completely satisfactory. For instance, while the black hole would eat stars near to it, creating a region of low density, this region would be much smaller than a parsec.

See also

  • Galactic anticenter
    Galactic anticenter
    The galactic anticenter is a theoretical point in the sky that lies directly opposite the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Because this point is relative, it will vary depending on the location of the observer; it is not an actual fixed point in space. Most of the time, this term refers to the...

  • Galactic coordinate system
    Galactic coordinate system
    The galactic coordinate system is a celestial coordinate system which is centered on the Sun and is aligned with the apparent center of the Milky Way galaxy. The "equator" is aligned to the galactic plane...

  • Great Rift (astronomy)
    Great Rift (astronomy)
    In astronomy, the Great Rift is a series of overlapping, non-luminous, molecular dust clouds that are located between the Solar System and the Sagittarius Arm of the Milky Way Galaxy at a distance of about 100 parsecs or about 300 light years from Earth...

  • Sagittarius B2
    Sagittarius B2
    Sagittarius B2 is a giant molecular cloud of gas and dust that is located about from the center of the Milky Way. This complex is the largest molecular cloud in the vicinity of the core and one of the largest in the galaxy, spanning a region about across. The total mass of Sgr B2 is about 3...

  • Supermassive black hole
    Supermassive black hole
    A supermassive black hole is the largest type of black hole in a galaxy, in the order of hundreds of thousands to billions of solar masses. Most, and possibly all galaxies, including the Milky Way, are believed to contain supermassive black holes at their centers.Supermassive black holes have...


External links