Visualizing the chaos near the Milky Way’s central black hole

Imagine a voyage to the center of the Milky Way and then taking in the view from just outside the 4-million-solar-mass black hole lurking near the core. An immersive 360-degree visualisation based on super computer simulations and data from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory lets you do just that, showing the movements of massive stars with fierce solar winds blowing through space a few light years away from Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the heart of Earth’s home galaxy.

In a release describing the visualisation, Chandra X-Ray Observatory officials say the winds “provide a buffet of material for the supermassive black hole to potentially feed upon.”

“The viewer can observe dense clumps of material streaming toward Sgr A*,” the release says. “These clumps formed when winds from the massive stars near Sgr A* collide. Along with watching the motion of these clumps, viewers can watch as relatively low-density gas falls toward Sgr A*. In this new visualisation, the blue and cyan colours represent X-ray emission from hot gas, with temperatures of tens of millions of degrees; red shows moderately dense regions of cooler gas, with temperatures of tens of thousands of degrees; and yellow shows of the cooler gas with the highest densities.

“A collection of X-ray-emitting gas is seen to move slowly when it is far away from Sgr A*, and then pick up speed and whip around the viewer as it comes inwards. Sometimes clumps of gas will collide with gas ejected by other stars, resulting in a flash of X-rays when the gas is heated up, and then it quickly cools down. Farther away from the viewer, the movie also shows collisions of fast stellar winds producing X-rays. These collisions are thought to provide the dominant source of hot gas that is seen by Chandra.”