First Optical Measurements of Milky Way’s Mysterious Fermi Bubbles

Fermi Bubbles: Astronomers used the WHAM telescope to measure huge outflows of gas extending from the Milky Way’s center known as the Fermi Bubbles. They were able to measure the velocity, density and pressure of the gas for the first time, confirming and extending previous measurements made by using a distant quasar as a light source to look through and measure the gas.
Credit: Images by Dhanesh Krishnarao and NASA

Using the Wisconsin H-Alpha Mapper telescope, astronomers have for the first time measured the Fermi Bubbles in the visible light spectrum. The Fermi Bubbles are two enormous outflows of high-energy gas that emanate from the Milky Way and the finding refines our understanding of the properties of these mysterious blobs.

The research team from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, UW-Whitewater and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University measured the emission of light from hydrogen and nitrogen in the Fermi Bubbles at the same position as recent ultraviolet absorption measurements made by the Hubble Telescope.

“We combined those two measurements of emission and absorption to estimate the density, pressure and temperature of the ionized gas, and that lets us better understand where this gas is coming from,” says Dhanesh Krishnarao, lead author of the new study and an astronomy graduate student at UW-Madison.

The researchers announced their findings on June 3 at the 236th meeting of the American Astronomical Society, which was held virtually for the first time since 1899, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Extending 25,000 light years both above and below the center of the Milky Way, the Fermi Bubbles were discovered in 2010 by the Fermi Gamma Ray Telescope. These faint but highly energetic outflows of gas are racing away from the center of the Milky Way at millions of miles per hour. But while the origin of the phenomenon has been inferred to date back several million years ago, the events that produced the bubbles remain a mystery.

Now, with new measurements of the density and pressure of the ionized gas, researchers can test models of the Fermi Bubbles against observations.

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