Did you know our Milky Way galaxy is blowing bubbles? Two of them, each 25,000 light-years tall! They extend above and below the disk of the galaxy, like the two halves of an hourglass. We can’t see them with our own eyes because they’re only apparent in gamma rays, the highest-energy light in the universe.
We didn’t even know these humongous structures were smack in the middle of our galaxy until 2010. Scientists found them when they analyzed the first two years of data from NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. They dubbed them the “Fermi bubbles” and found that in addition to being really big and spread out, they seem to have well-defined edges. The bubbles’ shape and the light they give off led scientists to think they were created by a rapid release of energy. But by what? And when?
One possible explanation is that they could be leftovers from the last big meal eaten by the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy. This monster is more than 4 million times the mass of our own Sun. Scientists think it may have slurped up a big cloud of hydrogen between 6 and 9 million years ago and then burped jets of hot gas that we see in gamma rays and X-rays.
Another possible explanation is that the bubbles could be the remains of star formation. There are massive clusters of stars at the center of the Milky Way — sometimes the stars are so closely packed they’re a million times more dense than in the outer suburb of the galaxy where we live. If there was a burst of star formation in this area a few million years ago, it could have created the surge of gas needed to in turn create the Fermi bubbles.
It took us until 2010 to see these Fermi bubbles because the sky is filled with a fog of other gamma rays that can obscure our view. This fog is created when particles moving near light speed bump into gas, dust, and light in the Milky Way. These collisions produce gamma rays, and scientists had to factor out the fog to unveil the bubbles.
Scientists continue to study the possible causes of these massive bubbles using data collected by Fermi, which has made many other exciting discoveries — like the collision of superdense neutron stars and the nature of space-time.