South African Astronomers Stumble on Massive Bubbles in the Milky Way

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South African astronomers have accidentally discovered two giant bubbles of radiation up to 1,400 light-years in the centre of the galaxy.

The giant bubbles of radiation observed for the first time using South Africa’s new MeerKAT telescope were seen to be expanding from the centre of the Milky Way.

The discovery published in Nature, and almost 100 authors have raised suspicions among scientists that our galaxy’s usually calm supermassive black hole may have been feeding aggressively on massive collage of gas and matter a few million years ago, releasing the bubbles described as the black hole’s consequent belch of radiation.

This is the first result using the full 64 dishes that comprise the South Africa-designed and -built MeerKAT telescope.

The stunning radio image obtained by MeerKAT shows the central portions of the Milky Way galaxy. Its plane, marked by a series of bright features, runs horizontally through the image, while the newly discovered radio bubbles extend vertically above and below. (Credit: SARAO. Adapted from results published in Heywood et al. 2019.)

The telescope will ultimately be absorbed into the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). The SKA is set to become the largest radio telescope on Earth and will include thousands of dishes on the African continent and millions of antennas in Australia.

But the discovery of the radio bubbles was an accident, the paper authors said. For the inauguration of the telescope last year, astronomers pointed the dishes at the centre of our galaxy, the Milky Way, to create an image to showcase the capabilities of the telescope, said Fernando Camilo, chief scientist at the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) and an author on the paper.

“We were more focused with making a pretty image, but after the inauguration, in September of last year once things had calmed down, we analysed the data” and discovered the radio bubbles, he said.

“The bubble structure itself was entirely serendipitous,” explained Ian Heywood, a researcher at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and an honorary professor at Rhodes University of South Africa.

“Only because of MeerKAT’s exceptional capabilities could we pick up the bubble structure.”

He said that the discovery was “the result of many diligent and clever people over many years.”

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