Five billion years ago, a great disturbance rocked a region near the monster black hole at the center of galaxy 3C 279.
NASA’s Fermi has spotted record flare from black hole in distant galaxy. Five billion years ago, a great disturbance rocked a region near the monster black hole at the center of galaxy 3C 279. On June 14, the pulse of high-energy light produced by this event finally arrived at Earth, setting off detectors aboard NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope and other satellites.
Astronomers around the world turned instruments toward the galaxy to observe this brief but record-setting flare in greater detail.
Sara Cutini, a Fermi Large Area Telescope scientist said that while one day 3C 279 was just one of many active galaxies, the next day it turned to be the brightest thing in the gamma-ray sky.
3C 279 is a famous blazar, a galaxy whose high-energy activity is powered by a central supermassive black hole weighing up to a billion times the Sun’s mass and roughly the size of our planetary system. What makes a blazar so bright is that one of these particle jets happens to be aimed almost straight at us.
The flare was the most dynamic outburst Fermi had seen in its seven years of operation, becoming 10 times brighter overnight, said Elizabeth Hays, a Fermi deputy project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
The Italian Space Agency’s AGILE gamma-ray satellite first reported the flare, followed by Fermi. Rapid follow-up observations were made by NASA’s Swift satellite and the European Space Agency’s INTEGRAL spacecraft, which just happened to be looking in the right direction, along with optical and radio telescopes on the ground.
3C 279 holds a special place in the history of gamma-ray astronomy. During a flare in 1991 detected by the EGRET instrument on NASA’s then recently launched Compton Gamma Ray Observatory (CGRO), which operated until 2000, the galaxy set the record for the most distant and luminous gamma-ray source known at the time.