The Milky Way’s giant gas bubbles were seen in visible light for the first time

Mysterious cosmic bubbles are being seen
in a new light.

For the first time, scientists have
observed visible light from the Fermi bubbles, enormous blobs of gas that sandwich
the plane of the Milky Way galaxy. The newly spotted glow was emitted by
hydrogen gas that was electrically charged, or ionized, within the bubbles. Astronomer Dhanesh Krishnarao of the University of
Wisconsin–Madison and colleagues described the finding June 3 in a news conference at the American Astronomical Society virtual meeting and
in
a paper posted at arXiv.org on May 29.

Originally observed in 2010, the bubbles
spew high-energy light known as gamma rays. The towering structures, each
25,000 light-years tall, are thought to be relics of an ancient outburst of gas from the galaxy’s center. But scientists don’t know the source. The outflow
could have been the result of the black hole at the center of the galaxy
messily gobbling up matter, or emissions caused by bursts of stars forming.

Within the bubbles, gas is expanding
outward, its motion altering the apparent wavelength of its light. Material
closer to the solar system is traveling toward it, appearing bluer, and more
distant gas is moving away, appearing redder.  The wavelength shift allowed the researchers
to pinpoint the gas’s velocity at one location within the bubbles. Using the Wisconsin
H-Alpha Mapper telescope, or WHAM, the researchers determined that the gas
flowed outward at about 220 kilometers per second. The estimate agreed with an
earlier measurement made using ultraviolet light.

By taking measurements in other
locations, the researchers hope to more fully map out the velocity of the gas. “What
that can tell us is how, over time, the energy output from the Fermi bubbles
has changed. That’ll really be able to nail down more about the origin,” Krishnarao
said.