An overview of active galaxies
An overview of active galaxies

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

An overview of active galaxies

4 Black holes at the centres of ordinary galaxies

4.1 The Milky Way

Figure 1 showed two spiral galaxies: NGC 5548, which has an active nucleus, and NGC 3277 which does not. If we accept that AGN are the result of accretion on to supermassive black holes at the centres of the galaxies which harbour them, it is natural to ask the question whether galaxies like NGC 3277, which do not have active nuclei, are without central supermassive black holes, or simply without significant amounts of accretion on to their central black holes. Recent observations have made it clear that in some cases at least, apparently ordinary non-AGN galaxies seem to harbour supermassive black holes at their centres.

Perhaps most dramatic is the evidence for a supermassive black hole at the centre of our own Milky Way Galaxy. It is impossible to study the centre of our Galaxy in optical light because there is lots of gas and dust in the plane of the Galaxy which obscures our view of the central regions. At other wavelengths, however, the optical depth is less, and it has long been known that the centre of our Galaxy harbours a compact radio source which is called Sgr A* (pronounced ‘sadj ay-star’), and is shown in Figure 7. Apart from Sgr A*, the radio emission from the centre of our Galaxy is diffuse and filamentary. The stars near the centre of the Galaxy are not visible because they are not strong radio sources. The infrared (IR) view shown in Figure 8 is very different. The IR image shown in Figure 8 is diffraction-limited, and gives a resolution of 0.15 arcsec. The blobs are individual stars within 0.02 pc of the Sgr A* radio source, whose position is marked with the small cross at the centre of Figure 8.

Figure 7
Figure 7 A radio image of the centre of the Milky Way Galaxy. White areas indicate intense radio emission and the red and black areas are progressively less intense. This image was taken with the Very Large Array (VLA) by Jun-Hui Zhao and W. M. Goss. The white dot at the centre of the image is the Sgr A* compact radio source
Figure 8
Figure 8 A high spatial-resolution K-band image of the central regions of our own Galaxy. The bright blobs are individual stars. The small cross at the centre of the image shows the position of the compact radio source Sgr A*


Question: How do the scales of the images in Figure 7 and Figure 8 compare?


The bar in Figure 7 represents 8 arcsec, while the image in Figure 8 is only about 3 arcsec across: the scale on the axis extends from about −1.5 arcsec to about +1.5 arcsec, and is centred on Sgr A*.

Figure 8 is one frame of the short animation you will see in Activity 3. The animation shows a series of high spatial resolution infrared images of the centre of our Galaxy, which were taken during the 1990s. The motions of individual stars are clearly apparent. By measuring these motions, the strength of the gravitational field experienced by the stars can be deduced. This is analogous to the determination of the Sun's gravitational field (and hence the Sun's mass) by studying the orbits of the planets in the Solar System. As you will see in the animation, however, the stars at the centre of the galaxy are not neatly aligned in a plane analogous to the ecliptic in the Solar System. Instead, the stars follow randomly oriented orbits, and the virial theorem rather than Kepler's third law is used to deduce the gravitational field. The motions you will see in Activity 3 require the presence of a dark body with mass 2.45 ± 0.4 × 106M at the centre of our Galaxy. This dark central body is almost certainly a black hole.


Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371