Astronomers discover giant chimneys spewing energy from the center of the galaxy

Dramatic events are unfolding in the heart of the Milky Way. At the center of our galaxy, a supermassive black hole hoovers up dust and gases and blasts out energy while nearby, stars are born and die in epic explosions.

Now astronomers have discovered two exhaust channels which are funneling matter and energy away from the supermassive black hole and out towards the edges of the galaxy, which they have dubbed “galactic center chimneys.”

“We hypothesize that these chimneys are exhaust vents for all the energy released at the center of the galaxy,” Mark Morris, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California, Los Angeles, who contributed to the research, said in a statement. The cosmic chimneys funnel energy into the Fermi bubbles, two enormous structures bulging out from the center of the galaxy which stretch for 25,000 light-years in either direction.

galactic center chimneys in milky way mid 1
The galactic chimneys (yellow-orange areas extending vertically) are centered on the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy. Gabriele Ponti/MPE/INAF and Mark Morris/UCLA

It is believed that these cosmic chimneys may play an important role in how quickly new stars are formed within our galaxy. The funneling away of matter and energy puts the brakes on the process of star formation, which determines the character of a galaxy. “In extreme cases, that fountain of energy can either trigger or shut off star formation in the galaxy,” Morris said.

The chimneys in our galaxy aren’t so extreme as in others because our supermassive black hole is relatively lighter. In other galaxies, the central black hole can have a mass of a thousand times more than ours. But looking at our galaxy is a helpful way to understand how this process may play out under different conditions.

“We know that outflows and winds of material and energy emanating from a galaxy are crucial in sculpting and altering that galaxy’s shape over time — they’re key players in how galaxies, and other structures, form and evolve throughout the cosmos,” lead author Gabriele Ponti of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany, explained. “Luckily, our galaxy gives us a nearby laboratory to explore this in detail, and probe how material flows out into the space around us.”

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