X-ray chimneys connect the Milky Way with mysterious gamma bubbles



Two imposing "chimneys" illuminated by X-rays extend from the center of the Milky Way. The newly discovered structures could help explain the source of two even larger features: giant gamma-ray emitting bubbles, or high-energy light, found above and below the galaxy plane.

Extending over hundreds of light-years, X-ray chimneys seem to connect gamma-ray bubbles to the center of the galaxy, scientists report on March 21. Nature. "It's really interesting and it could tell us a lot about the origin of gamma-ray bubbles," says astrophysicist Tracy Slatyer of MIT. Slatyer was part of the team that discovered the bubbles but did not participate in the new study.

New observations with the XMM-Newton satellite of the European Space Agency have uncovered the chimneys. The researchers "have done a fantastic job of demonstrating these very distinct features," says astronomer Daniel Wang of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Previously, allusions to such structures were found using the Japanese Suzaku X-ray satellite, he said.

The chimneys, each about 300 light-years wide, could channel energy from the center of the galaxy to gamma bubbles, says astronomer Mark Morris of UCLA, co-author of the new study. "One way of seeing things is exhaust mouths", through which energy escapes.

Colossal fireplaces

Two large gamma-ray bubbles (on the left) are connected to the heart of the galaxy by chimneys hundreds of light-years away (illustration, center, radiograph, right).

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Each bubble of gamma rays is about the size of a small galaxy and the source of the energy light of the spheres is a mystery since their discovery in 2010 (SN: 12/04/10, p. 18). Producing gamma rays requires very energetic particles, which could be eroded by exploding stars, for example, or by the supermassive black hole at the heart of the galaxy that sucks matter and tears the stars.

The discovery of the chimneys does not make it possible to locate such a source. But it establishes a clearer link between the center of the galaxy and the bubbles, says astrophysicist Jun-Hui Zhao of the Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysical Center. "It's very important to find that piece of the puzzle," he says.


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