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Fermi detects record flare from distant black hole

"This flare is the most dynamic outburst Fermi has seen," said astronomer Elizabeth Hays.

By Brooks Hays
Fermi detects record flare from distant black hole
Blazar 3C 279's massive gamma-ray flare as imaged by the Large Area Telescope on NASA's Fermi satellite. Photo by NASA

GREENBELT, Md., July 10 (UPI) -- On June 14, a burst of energy registered on the instruments of NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.

The high-energy light had traveled some five billion light-years revealing an ancient disturbance originating from the a large black hole in the center of galaxy 3C 279.

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"One day 3C 279 was just one of many active galaxies we see, and the next day it was the brightest thing in the gamma-ray sky," Sara Cutini, a Fermi Large Area Telescope scientist, said in a press release.

Cutini works as a researcher at the Italian Space Agency's Science Data Center in Rome.

The galaxy of note is a blazar, characterized by a high-intensity quasar, compact but powerful. Quasars are believed to be the visible byproduct of gas burning up as it's swallowed by supermassive black holes. Blazars are one of the most energetic phenomena in the universe.

"This flare is the most dynamic outburst Fermi has 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.

The burst of gamma rays emanating from the faraway black hole remains intense, appearing much brighter than similar blazars that are much closer to Earth. But the burst has faded in intensity since its peak on June 16.

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As to what caused the flare, researchers will get to that once the influx of gamma rays subsides. For now, they're trying to gather as much real-time data as they can.

"Our priority is to make observations while the object is still bright," explained Masaaki Hayashida, a Fermi team member at the University of Tokyo's Institute for Cosmic Ray Research. "Once it's over, we can start trying to understand the mechanisms powering it."

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