Milky Way Bubbles & Black Holes: What's Going On In Space?

Julie Marsh
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Forgive me, but I'm about to go all amateur space geek on you, thanks to the discovery of two gamma-ray bubbles in the Milky Way (which is our home galaxy, not just a candy bar). NASA's Fermi Gamma-Ray Telescope found these gigantic globules of gamma rays -- one above and one below the plane of the galaxy -- and announced it yesterday.

The image from the telescope shows two bright violet orbs. From the top of one to the bottom of the other measures 50,000 light years. Astronomers have hypothesized that the bubbles are a result of "an outburst from the supermassive black hole lurking in the center of the galaxy."

Oh yeah, we've got a black hole in the middle of our galaxy. Be careful not to fall in, okay?

Don't go out stargazing expecting to spot these bubbles though, because they're not actually violet. They're comprised of gamma rays, which are at the far right end of the electromagnetic spectrum -- beyond ultraviolet light, xrays, and radioactive particles. Gamma rays have the shortest wavelength and highest energy of all radiation. They are not visible, and they can do serious damage to your body. No space flights to the gamma-ray bubbles, sorry.

Another really cool and mind-blowing aspect of this discovery is its size and the possible timeline of its creation. Talking about time and distance in space is akin to talking about the federal budget and deficit and debt -- it's nearly impossible to fathom the reality of the numbers.

Remember, these gamma-ray bubbles span 50,000 light years. That's the distance light travels in 50,000 years. Our sun is 93 million miles from Earth, and it takes eight minutes for a photon emitted from the sun to reach us. A light year is approximately 5,879 billion miles. Now multiply that by 50,000.

Meanwhile, astronomers suggest that the gamma-ray bubbles could have been created in a relatively short amount of time -- 10,000 or 100,000 years -- by eruptions of energy from the black hole. Where it comes to our universe, time is so relative that an order of magnitude is a reasonable margin of error.

What does the discovery of these bubbles mean for science? Tough to say yet, but they certainly could give scientists more clues as to how matter and energy behave in our universe.

 

Image via Discovery


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