Giant bubbles of hot gas erupt from the core of the Milky Way galaxy in this artist's concept. The galaxy's thin disk is shown edge-on, with the bubbles billowing thousands of light-years into intergalactic space. Known as Fermi bubbles for their discovery by the Fermi space telescope, they may have been created by eruptions in a disk of gas close to the galaxy's central black hole. The bubbles are visible only to space telescopes that are sensitive to gamma rays and X-rays. [NASA/GSFC]
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Hot gas is exploding out of the center of the galaxy. It forms giant bubbles that extend more than 30,000 light-years above and below the galaxy’s hub. The bubbles emit gamma rays — the most powerful form of energy. Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope has traced these expanding bubbles, which have been named Fermi bubbles in its honor. The observations have revealed how fast the gas is moving. In turn, that reveals when the outflow began.
The astronomers used Hubble Space Telescope to observe a distant quasar that’s behind the bubbles. As the quasar’s light passes through the Fermi bubbles, atoms of gas absorb some of the energy. These observations indicate that the gas is rushing out of the Milky Way’s central regions in all directions — at about two million miles per hour.
That speed reveals that the outflow started about two-and-a-half million to four million years ago. So that’s when something happened to trigger the eruption. One possibility is that a cloud of gas fell toward the supermassive black hole at the Milky Way’s center. The gas got extremely hot as it did so, creating enough radiation to blow surrounding gas far out into space.
Astronomers are analyzing more than 20 other quasars whose radiation passes through the Fermi bubbles. Since each quasar probes a different line of sight, the observations should yield the velocities of gas throughout the bubbles — perhaps settling the question of their origin.
Script by Ken Croswell, Copyright 2015