24/10/2012 05:42 BST | Updated 23/12/2012 05:12 GMT

Massive Flare Erupts From Supermassive Black Hole At Milky Way's Centre

A giant flare of energy erupting from the supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy has been caught on camera by Nasa.

The NuStar (Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array) produced its pictures of the black hole using X-ray light.

They are the first high-energy X-ray views of the area at the centre of the Milky Way.


The black hole is named Sagittarius A* (SgrA*) and is usually relatively "mild-mannered", Nasa said.

Black holes located at the centre of galaxies are usually very active, swallowing stars, gas clouds and planets around them and expelling huge amounts of extra energy when they do.

But SgrA* tends not to do that, Nasa said. In fact it is thought "only to nibble, or not eat at all", in a process that is "not fully understood".

But the new pictures tell a different story - or at least manage to capture a rare instance of SgrA* belching after a tasty morsel.

The pictures show a bright white dot, which represents the hottest material close to the black hole, and a blob of hot pinkish gas which Nasa said probably belongs to the remnant of a supernova.


Above: The main image is composed of light seen at four different X-ray energies. Blue light represents energies of 10 to 30 kiloelectron volts (keV); green is 7 to 10 keV; and red is 3 to 7 keV. The time series shows light with energies of 3 to 30 keV.

The flare was captured over two days in July, and at its hottest registered 180 million degrees Fahrenheit.

"We got lucky to have captured an outburst from the black hole during our observing campaign," said Fiona Harrison, the mission's principal investigator at the California Institute of Technology.

"These data will help us better understand the gentle giant at the heart of our galaxy and why it sometimes flares up for a few hours and then returns to slumber."