Galaxy’s centre prompt awe

By | Science & Technology
Milky Way galaxy Credit@ Courtesy of CSIRO

Recent reporting of so-called ‘geysers’ shooting out from the centre of the Milky Way, seems to be eliciting its share of gasps and reverent surprise from scientists and amateur cosmologists alike. Astronomers from Australia, the United States, Italy and The Netherlands have reportedly detected outflows of charged particles — which extend over halfway across the sky — emanating from the centre of our galaxy.

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australia’s national science agency — collaboratively working with various international scientists and institutions — has managed to use its 64m Parkes radio telescope to map these colloquially dubbed ‘galactic geysers’ in scientific terms. In layman’s terms, their powerful outward expulsion makes them appear this way.

The outflows are carrying off gas, high-energy electrons and powerful magnetic fields. They have produced a haze of microwave emission previously observed by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe and Planck space telescopes and match regions of gamma-ray emission seen through NASA’s Fermi telescope in 2010.

“The amount of energy contained in the outflows is massive. It corresponds to the energy liberated by about a million supernova explosions: that is a lot!” CSIRO’s research team leader Ettore Carretti tells The Positive. “Each supernova outshines the entire galaxy they are hosted in.”

The level of energy fuelling these blasts seems to be equal to approximately a million supernova explosions. The outflows run up and down from the Galactic plane, extending 50,000 light years (500,000 million million km), congruous with half the diameter of the Milky Way Galaxy (which measures 100,000 light-years — a million million million km — across).

The stellar findings were reported in January by CSIRO in the journal Nature. Like many scientific discoveries before it, this one was unplanned. Carretti explains that he and the team had been attempting to study the structure of the Milky Way — in particular its galactic field. “We planned the project to unveil the signal of our galaxy and explore [an unchartered] space of parameters,” he says.

At the culmination of the observations, when poring over their maps, they discovered “a nice surprise,” the behemoth structures. And, of course, the original intent of their project to research the magnetic field appeared to be realised, with the addition of a notable discovery: the outflows might play a large role in generating the Galaxy’s magnetic field. Prior to the emergence of this previously invisible display, says Carretti, “the radio-polarised sky was mapped either at too [minimal] or too high a frequency.” When they mapped the galaxy at a low frequency, the signal was hidden by the magneto-optical effect known as the ‘Faraday Rotation.’ It was only when they set the frequency in the mid-range that the discovery was made.

Beyond these scientifically revelatory findings, Carretti and his team were apparently in for a few more discoveries — in particular, in regards to the Galactic Halo, which is known to be a “quiet place.” They uncovered that a huge amount of energy is generated at the compact Galactic centre and transported at supersonic speed (circa 1000 Km/s) off the Galactic plane, high into the Halo.

The CSIRO team members seemed to also be awestruck upon uncovering what Carretti calls a “record of the star formation activity of the Galactic central area of the last some 10 million years” via collimated ridge structures corkscrewing around the surface of the lobes they discovered. The outflows appear to be sourced by the formation of stars.

Since the clear and spectacular view of the eruptions has been mapped and proliferated through scientific journals, blogs and other media, reactions beyond the CSIRO camp have seemingly been understandably replete with a sense of promise, and a measure of pontification.

Biologist and metaphysics author Carl Johan Calleman told The Positive: “It is absolutely interesting. It does very visibly create the perpendicular directions from which the human mind was created at the centre of our galaxy, and this has not been visible before.”

In an article on Slate.com, astronomer Phil Plait, who called the phenomenon ‘The Milky Way’s Old Faithfuls,’ marvelled: ‘It’s incredible to think that something with so much power [may] have been hiding from us for so long; it’s only because it’s spread out over so much sky.’

He added: ‘That’s yet another reason I love science so much. It’s a magnificent puzzle that never ends. There’s always another piece of it waiting to be found around the corner, and there’s always more to learn.’

What other scientific discoveries are yet to be unearthed?

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