Unprecedented variability of Sgr A* in NIR

Do, Tuan; Witzel, Gunther; Gautam, Abhimat K.; Chen, Zhuo; Ghez, Andrea M.; Morris, Mark R.; Becklin, Eric E.; Ciurlo, Anna; Hosek, Matthew, Jr.; Martinez, Gregory D.; Matthews, Keith; Sakai, Shoko; Schödel, Rainer

August, 2019
ABSTRACT: 

The electromagnetic counterpart to the Galactic center supermassive black hole, Sgr A*, has been observed in the near-infrared for over 20 years and is known to be highly variable. We report new Keck Telescope observations showing that Sgr A* reached much brighter flux levels in 2019 than ever measured at near-infrared wavelengths. In the K′ band, Sgr A* reached flux levels of ∼6 mJy, twice the level of the previously observed peak flux from >13,000 measurements over 130 nights with the VLT and Keck Telescopes. We also observe a factor of 75 change in flux over a 2-hour time span with no obvious color changes between 1.6 μm and 2.1 μm. The distribution of flux variations observed this year is also significantly different than the historical distribution. Using the most comprehensive statistical model published, the probability of a single night exhibiting peak flux levels observed this year, given historical Keck observations, is less than 0.3%. The probability to observe the flux levels similar to all 4 nights of data in 2019 is less than 0.05%. This increase in brightness and variability may indicate a period of heightened activity from Sgr A* or a change in its accretion state. It may also indicate that the current model is not sufficient to model Sgr A* at high flux levels and should be updated. Potential physical origins of Sgr A*'s unprecedented brightness may be from changes in the accretion-flow as a result of the star S0-2's closest passage to the black hole in 2018 or from a delayed reaction to the approach of the dusty object G2 in 2014. Additional multi-wavelength observations will be necessary to both monitor Sgr A* for potential state changes and to constrain the physical processes responsible for its current variability.