The table manners of the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole


Understanding accretion onto supermassive black holes and the associated feedback to their environment lies at the basis of understanding their formation, growth and evolution, the chemical enrichment of the interstellar medium, galaxy evolution, and the formation of large scale structures in the universe. Sagittarius A* (a.k.a. Sgr A*) is a supermassive black hole that forms the dynamical center of our Milky Way Galaxy. Being the most nearby Galactic nucleus, it allows for an unparalleled study of the fueling process of supermassive black holes.

Surprisingly enough, the bolometric luminosity of Sgr A* is about 8-9 orders of magnitude lower than the maximum radiation (the Eddington limit) that can be emitted from the environment of a supermassive black hole with a mass of 4 million times that of our Sun. Its faintness is particularly puzzling because nearby dense star cluster are thought to supply enough matter to serve as a grant banquet for Sgr A*. However, it appears that our Galactic nucleus is on a diet.

Nevertheless, it appears to crave for an occasional snack; the relatively steady quiescent radiation of Sgr A* is, however, occasionally punctured by hours-long flares during which the X-ray emission increases by 1-2 orders of magnitude. These events are likely related to small accretion events or magnetic processes. Most excitingly, the time scale involved with these phenomena suggest that they must be originating very close to the black hole (within approximately 15 Schwarzschild radii). A few dozens of X-ray flares have been detected from Sgr A* by using the Chandra and XMM-Newton satellites. The far majority of these are relatively weak; only on 4 occasions was the emission observed to increase more than 100 times the steady base level.

We investigated nearly 800 observations of the center of our Galaxy that were obtained with the X-ray Telescope onboard the Swift telescope between 2006 and 2012. In these 6 years of monitoring data we discovered a total of 6 bright X-ray flares from Sgr A* during which the emission increased by a factor of 100. Owing to its uniquely dense sampling, the Swift campaign more than double the number of observed bright X-ray flares from our supermassive black hole. This allowed to constrain the recurrence rate of these events, and made an unbiased comparative study of their spectral properties possible for the first time. Having mapped out the long-term X-ray behavior of Sgr A* with Swift provides an important calibration point to assess whether the activity of our supermassive black hole is going to change as the result of its interaction with an approaching gas cloud (read more about this upcoming exciting event here).

Degenaar, Miller, Kennea, Gehrels, Reynolds, Wijnands 2013, ApJ 769, 155: The X-Ray Flaring Properties of Sgr A* during Six Years of Monitoring with Swift

Paper link: ADS

The Swift monitoring website:

Press: German radio interview

Three-color accumulated Swift X-ray Telescope Image of the Galactic center (2006-2014).

Three-color accumulated Swift X-ray Telescope Image of the Galactic center (2006-2014).