The Plasma Jets of Active Supermassive Black Holes

Transform surrounding regions and actively evolve host galaxies 

This artist's rendition illustrates a rare galaxy that is extremely dusty, and produces radio jets. Scientists suspect that these galaxies are created when two smaller galaxies merge. A few billion years after the Big Bang, astronomers suspect that small galaxies across the Universe regularly collided forcing the gas, dust, stars, and black holes within them to unite. The clashing of galactic gases was so powerful it ignited star formation, while fusing central black holes developed an insatiable appetite for gas and dust. With stellar nurseries and black holes hungry for galactic gas, a struggle ensued. Scientists say this struggle for resources is relatively short-lived, lasting only 10 to 100 million years. Eventually, much of the gas will be pushed out of the galaxy by the powerful winds of newborn stars, stars going supernovae (dying in a cataclysmic explosion), or radio jets shooting out of central supermassive black holes. The removal of gas will stunt the growth of black holes by "starving'' them, and quench star formation. They believe that these early merging structures eventually grew into some of the most massive galaxies in the Universe.
This artist’s rendition illustrates a rare galaxy that is extremely dusty and produces radio jets. Scientists suspect that these galaxies are created when two smaller galaxies merge.
A few billion years after the Big Bang, astronomers suspect that small galaxies across the Universe regularly collided forcing the gas, dust, stars, and black holes within them to unite. The clashing of galactic gasses was so powerful it ignited star formation while fusing central black holes developed an insatiable appetite for gas and dust. With stellar nurseries and black holes hungry for galactic gas, a struggle ensued.
Scientists say this struggle for resources is relatively short-lived, lasting only 10 to 100 million years. Eventually, much of the gas will be pushed out of the galaxy by the powerful winds of newborn stars, stars going supernovae (dying in a cataclysmic explosion), or radio jets shooting out of central supermassive black holes. The removal of gas will stunt the growth of black holes by “starving” them and quench star formation.
They believe that these early emerging structures eventually grew into some of the most massive galaxies in the Universe. Credits: NASA/JPL

Space news (astrophysics: spinning black holes; bigger, brighter plasma jets) – in the core of galaxies across the cosmos, observing the spin of supermassive black holes – 

In this radio image, two jets shoot out of the center of active galaxy Cygnus A. GLAST may solve the mystery of how these jets are produced and what they are made of. Credit: NRAO
In this radio image, two jets shoot out of the center of active galaxy Cygnus A. GLAST may solve the mystery of how these jets are produced and what they are made of. Credit: NRAO

Have you ever had the feeling the world isn’t the way you see it? That reality’s different than the view your senses offer you? The universe beyond the Earth is vast beyond comprehension and weird in ways human imagination struggles to fathom. Beyond the reach of your senses, the fabric of spacetime warps near massive objects, and even light bends to the will of gravity. In the twilight zone where your senses fear to tread, the cosmos twists and turns in weird directions and appears to leave the universe and reality far behind. Enigmas wrapped in cosmic riddles abound and mysteries to astound and bewilder the human soul are found. 

The galaxy NGC 4151 is located about 45 million light-years away toward the constellation Canes Venatici. Activity powered by its central black hole makes NGC 4151 one of the brightest active galaxies in X-rays. Credit: David W. Hogg, Michael R. Blanton, and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey Collaboration. Credits: NASA/JPL
The galaxy NGC 4151 is located about 45 million light-years away toward the constellation Canes Venatici. Activity powered by its central black hole makes NGC 4151 one of the brightest active galaxies in X-rays. Credit: David W. Hogg, Michael R. Blanton, and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey Collaboration. Credits: NASA/JPL

Imagine an object containing the mass of millions even billions of stars like the Sun. Squeeze that matter into a region of infinitely small volume, a region so dense the gravitational force it exerts warps spacetime and prevents even light from escaping its grasp. This object’s what astronomers call a supermassive black hole, a titanic monster your eyes can’t see with a gravitational pull that would stretch your body to infinity as you approached and crossed its outer boundary, the event horizon. Beyond this point, spacetime and reality take a turn toward the extreme, and the rules of science don’t apply. You have entered the realm of one of the most mysterious and enigmatic objects discovered during the human journey to the beginning of space and time.  

In the newly discovered type of AGN, the disk and torus surrounding the black hole are so deeply obscured by gas and dust that no visible light escapes, making them very difficult to detect. This illustration shows the scene from a more distant perspective than does the other image. Click on image for high-res version. Image credit: Aurore Simonnet, Sonoma State University.
In the newly discovered type of AGN, the disk and torus surrounding the black hole are so deeply obscured by gas and dust that no visible light escapes, making them very difficult to detect. This illustration shows the scene from a more distant perspective than does the other image. Click on image for high-res version. Image credit: Aurore Simonnet, Sonoma State University.

Astronomers hunting for supermassive black holes have pinpointed their realms to be the center of massive galaxies and even the center of galaxy clusters. From this central location in each galaxy, the gravitational well of each supermassive black hole appears to act as an anchor point for the billions of stars within, and astronomers believe a force for change and evolution of every galaxy and galaxy cluster in which they exist. Surrounded and fed by massive clouds of gas and matter called accretion disks, with powerful particle jets streaming from opposite sides like the death ray in Star Wars, fierce, hot winds sometimes moving at millions of miles per hour blow from these supermassive monsters in all directions. 

These galaxy clusters show that younger, more distant galaxy clusters contained far more active galactic nuclei (AGN) than older, nearby ones. It was found that the clusters at 58% of the Universe's current age contained about 20 times more AGN than those at 82% of Universe's age. The galaxies in the earlier Universe contained much more gas that allowed for more star formation and black hole growth. In the Chandra X-ray images, red, green, and blue represent low, medium, and high-energy X-rays.
These galaxy clusters show that younger, more distant galaxy clusters contained far more active galactic nuclei (AGN) than older, nearby ones. It was found that the clusters at 58% of the Universe’s current age contained about 20 times more AGN than those at 82% of Universe’s age. The galaxies in the earlier Universe contained much more gas that allowed for more star formation and black hole growth. In the Chandra X-ray images, red, green, and blue represent low, medium, and high-energy X-rays. Credits: NASA/Chandra

“A lot of what happens in an entire galaxy depends on what’s going on in the minuscule central region where the black hole lies,” said theoretical astrophysicist David Garofalo of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Garofalo is the lead author of a new paper that appeared online May 27 in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Other authors are Daniel A. Evans of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass., and Rita M. Sambruna of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. 

These galaxy clusters show that younger, more distant galaxy clusters contained far more active galactic nuclei (AGN) than older, nearby ones. It was found that the clusters at 58% of the Universe's current age contained about 20 times more AGN than those at 82% of Universe's age. The galaxies in the earlier Universe contained much more gas that allowed for more star formation and black hole growth. In the Chandra X-ray images, red, green, and blue represent low, medium, and high-energy X-rays.
These galaxy clusters show that younger, more distant galaxy clusters contained far more active galactic nuclei (AGN) than older, nearby ones. It was found that the clusters at 58% of the Universe’s current age contained about 20 times more AGN than those at 82% of Universe’s age. The galaxies in the earlier Universe contained much more gas that allowed for more star formation and black hole growth. In the Chandra X-ray images, red, green, and blue represent low, medium, and high-energy X-rays. Credits: NASA/Chandra

Astronomers studying powerful particle jets streaming from supermassive black holes use to think these monsters spin either in the same direction as their accretion disks, called prograde black holes, or against the flow, retrograde black holes. For the past few decades, Garofalo and team have worked with a theory that the faster the spin of a black hole, the more powerful the particle jets streaming from it. Unfortunately, anomalies in the form of some prograde black holes with no jets have been discovered. This has scientists turning their ideas upside down and sideways, to see if flipping their “spin paradigm” model on its head explains recent anomalies in the theory. 

This composite image shows a vast cloud of hot gas (X-ray/red), surrounding high-energy bubbles (radio/blue) on either side of the bright white area around the supermassive black hole. By studying the inner regions of the galaxy with Chandra, scientists estimated the rate at which gas is falling toward the galaxy's supermassive black hole. These data also allowed an estimate of the power required to produce the bubbles, which are each about 10,000 light years in diameter. Surprisingly, the analysis indicates that most of the energy released by the infalling gas goes into producing jets of high-energy particles that create the huge bubbles, rather than into an outpouring of light as observed in many active galactic nuclei.
This composite image shows a vast cloud of hot gas (X-ray/red), surrounding high-energy bubbles (radio/blue) on either side of the bright white area around the supermassive black hole. By studying the inner regions of the galaxy with Chandra, scientists estimated the rate at which gas is falling toward the galaxy’s supermassive black hole. These data also allowed an estimate of the power required to produce the bubbles, which are each about 10,000 light years in diameter. Surprisingly, the analysis indicates that most of the energy released by the infalling gas goes into producing jets of high-energy particles that create the huge bubbles, rather than into an outpouring of light as observed in many active galactic nuclei. X-ray: NASA/CXC/KIPAC/S.Allen et al; Radio: NRAO/VLA/G.Taylor; Infrared: NASA/ESA/McMaster Univ./W.Harris

Using data collected during a more recent study that links their previous theory with observations of galaxies at varying distances from Earth across the observable universe. Astronomers found more distant radio-loud galaxies with jets are powered by retrograde black holes, while closer radio-quiet black holes have prograde black holes. The study showed supermassive black holes found at the core of galaxies evolve over time from a retrograde to prograde state.  

This illustration shows the different features of an active galactic nucleus (AGN), and how our viewing angle determines what type of AGN we observe. The extreme luminosity of an AGN is powered by a supermassive black hole at the center. Some AGN have jets, while others do not. Click on image for unlabeled, high-res version. Image credit: Aurore Simonnet, Sonoma State University.
This illustration shows the different features of an active galactic nucleus (AGN), and how our viewing angle determines what type of AGN we observe. The extreme luminosity of an AGN is powered by a supermassive black hole at the center. Some AGN have jets, while others do not. Click on image for unlabeled, high-res version. Image credit: Aurore Simonnet, Sonoma State University.

“This new model also solves a paradox in the old spin paradigm,” said David Meier, a theoretical astrophysicist at JPL not involved in the study. “Everything now fits nicely into place.” 

A mere 11 million light-years away, Centaurus A is a giant elliptical galaxy - the closest active galaxy to Earth. This remarkable composite view of the galaxy combines image data from the x-ray ( Chandra), optical(ESO), and radio(VLA) regimes. Centaurus A's central region is a jumble of gas, dust, and stars in optical light, but both radio and x-ray telescopes trace a remarkable jet of high-energy particles streaming from the galaxy's core. The cosmic particle accelerator's power source is a black hole with about 10 million times the mass of the Sun coincident with the x-ray bright spot at the galaxy's center. Blasting out from the active galactic nucleus toward the upper left, the energetic jet extends about 13,000 light-years. A shorter jet extends from the nucleus in the opposite direction. Other x-ray bright spots in the field are binary star systems with neutron stars or stellar mass black holes. Active galaxy Centaurus A is likely the result of a merger with a spiral galaxy some 100 million years ago.
A mere 11 million light-years away, Centaurus A is a giant elliptical galaxy – the closest active galaxy to Earth. This remarkable composite view of the galaxy combines image data from the x-ray ( Chandra), optical(ESO), and radio(VLA) regimes. Centaurus A’s central region is a jumble of gas, dust, and stars in optical light, but both radio and x-ray telescopes trace a remarkable jet of high-energy particles streaming from the galaxy’s core. The cosmic particle accelerator’s power source is a black hole with about 10 million times the mass of the Sun coincident with the x-ray bright spot at the galaxy’s center. Blasting out from the active galactic nucleus toward the upper left, the energetic jet extends about 13,000 light-years. A shorter jet extends from the nucleus in the opposite direction. Other x-ray bright spots in the field are binary star systems with neutron stars or stellar mass black holes. Active galaxy Centaurus A is likely the result of a merger with a spiral galaxy some 100 million years ago. Credits: X-ray – NASA, CXC, R.Kraft (CfA), et al.; Radio – NSF, VLA, M.Hardcastle (U Hertfordshire) et al.; Optical – ESO, M.Rejkuba (ESO-Garching) et al.

Astrophysicists studying backward spinning black holes believe more powerful particle jets stream from these supermassive black holes because additional space exists between the monster and the inner edge of the accretion disk. This additional space between the monster and accretion disk provides more room for magnetic fields to build-up, which fuels the particle jet and increases its power. This idea is known as Reynold’s Conjecture, after the theoretical astrophysicist Chris Reynolds of the University of Maryland, College Park. 

The optical counterparts of many active galactic nuclei (circled) detected by the Swift BAT Hard X-ray Survey clearly show galaxies in the process of merging. These images, taken with the 2.1-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, show galaxy shapes that are either physically intertwined or distorted by the gravity of nearby neighbors. These AGN were known prior to the Swift survey, but Swift has found dozens of new ones in more distant galaxies. Credit: NASA/Swift/NOAO/Michael Koss and Richard Mushotzky (Univ. of Maryland)
The optical counterparts of many active galactic nuclei (circled) detected by the Swift BAT Hard X-ray Survey clearly show galaxies in the process of merging. These images, taken with the 2.1-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, show galaxy shapes that are either physically intertwined or distorted by the gravity of nearby neighbors. These AGN were known prior to the Swift survey, but Swift has found dozens of new ones in more distant galaxies. Credit: NASA/Swift/NOAO/Michael Koss and Richard Mushotzky (Univ. of Maryland)

“If you picture yourself trying to get closer to a fan, you can imagine that moving in the same rotational direction as the fan would make things easier,” said Garofalo. “The same principle applies to these black holes. The material orbiting around them in a disk will get closer to the ones that are spinning in the same direction versus the ones spinning the opposite way.”  

Swift's Hard X-ray Survey offers the first unbiased census of active galactic nuclei in decades. Dense clouds of dust and gas, illustrated here, can obscure less energetic radiation from an active galaxy's central black hole. High-energy X-rays, however, easily pass through. Credit: ESA/NASA/AVO/Paolo Padovani
Swift’s Hard X-ray Survey offers the first unbiased census of active galactic nuclei in decades. Dense clouds of dust and gas, illustrated here, can obscure less energetic radiation from an active galaxy’s central black hole. High-energy X-rays, however, easily pass through. Credit: ESA/NASA/AVO/Paolo Padovani

Scientists believe the powerful particle jets and winds emanating from supermassive black holes found at the center of galaxies also play a key role in shaping their evolution and eventual fate. Often even slowing the formation rate of new stars in a host galaxy and nearby island universes as well.  

“Jets transport huge amounts of energy to the outskirts of galaxies, displace large volumes of the intergalactic gas, and act as feedback agents between the galaxy’s very center and the large-scale environment,” said Sambruna. “Understanding their origin is of paramount interest in modern astrophysics.” 

What lies just beyond the reach of our senses and technology, beneath the exterior of these supermassive black holes? Scientists presently study these enigmatic stellar objects looking for keys to the doors of understanding beyond the veil of gas and dust surrounding these titanic beasts. Keys they hope one day to use to unlock even greater secrets of reality just beyond hidden doors of understanding.  

Watch this video on active galactic nuclei.

Read and learn more about the supermassive black holes astronomers detect in a region called the COSMOS field.

Read about the recent detection by astronomers of read-end collisions between knots in the particle jets of supermassive black holes.

Learn what astronomers have discovered about feedback mechanisms in the feeding processes of active supermassive black holes.

You can join the voyage of NASA across the cosmos here

Learn more about supermassive black holes

Discover more about what scientists have discovered about the powerful particle jets emanating from supermassive black holes here

Discover NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Learn about astronomy at Caltech

Read and learn more about galaxies here

Discover more about spinning black holes.  

Advertisements

Common Chemicals Were Evenly Distributed Across the Early Cosmos

By stars that went supernovae at the end of their life cycles 

This visible light view shows the central part of the Virgo Cluster. The brightest object is the giant elliptical galaxy M87 (left of center). The image spans approximately 1.2 degrees, or about 2.4 times the apparent diameter of a full moon. Credits: NOAO/AURA/NSF Download the image in HD at NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio
This visible light view shows the central part of the Virgo Cluster. The brightest object is the giant elliptical galaxy M87 (left of center). The image spans approximately 1.2 degrees or about 2.4 times the apparent diameter of a full moon.
Credits: NOAO/AURA/NSF
Download the image in HD at NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio

Space news (astrophysics: creation and distribution of heavier chemical elements; supernovae) – watching as the elements of creation were spread evenly across millions of light-years more than ten billion years ago – 

This illustration depicts the Suzaku spacecraft. Suzaku (originally known as Astro-E2) was launched July 10, 2005, and maintains a low-Earth orbit while it observes X-rays from the universe. The satellite was developed at the Japanese Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (part of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, JAXA) in collaboration with Japanese and U.S. institutions, including NASA. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
This illustration depicts the Suzaku spacecraft. Suzaku (originally known as Astro-E2) was launched July 10, 2005, and maintains a low-Earth orbit while it observes X-rays from the universe. The satellite was developed at the Japanese Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (part of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, JAXA) in collaboration with Japanese and U.S. institutions, including NASA.
Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Astronomers using Japan’s Suzaku X-ray Satellite to survey hot, x-ray emitting gas in the Virgo Galaxy Cluster over 54 million light-years away have discovered something about the early universe. The survey showed the building blocks of the cosmos needed to make the planets, stars, and living things were evenly distributed across the cosmos over 10 billion years ago.  

Suzaku mapped iron, magnesium, silicon and sulfur in four directions all across the Virgo galaxy cluster for the first time. The northern arm of the survey (top) extends 5 million light-years from M87 (center), the massive galaxy at the cluster's heart. Ratios of these elements are constant throughout the cluster, which means they were mixed well early in cosmic history. The dashed circle shows what astronomers call the virial radius, the boundary where gas clouds are just entering the cluster. Some prominent members of the cluster are labeled as well. The background image is part of the all-sky X-ray survey acquired by the German ROSAT satellite. The blue box at center indicates the area shown in the visible light image. Credits: A. Simionescu (JAXA) and Hans Boehringer (MPE) Download the graphic in HD at NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio
Suzaku mapped iron, magnesium, silicon and sulfur in four directions all across the Virgo galaxy cluster for the first time. The northern arm of the survey (top) extends 5 million light-years from M87 (center), the massive galaxy at the cluster’s heart. Ratios of these elements are constant throughout the cluster, which means they were mixed well early in cosmic history. The dashed circle shows what astronomers call the virial radius, the boundary where gas clouds are just entering the cluster. Some prominent members of the cluster are labeled as well. The background image is part of the all-sky X-ray survey acquired by the German ROSAT satellite. The blue box at center indicates the area shown in the visible light image.
Credits: A. Simionescu (JAXA) and Hans Boehringer (MPE)
Download the graphic in HD at NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio

A team of astronomers led by Aurora Simionescu of Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in Sagamihara acquired data of the Virgo Galaxy Cluster along four arms extending up to 5 million light-years from its center. Data they used to show the elements of creation were evenly distributed across millions of light-years early in the cosmos. 

Aurora Simionescu of Japan's Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in Sagamihara Credits Image: NASA/JAXA
Aurora Simionescu of Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in Sagamihara
Credits Image: NASA/JAXA

“Heavier chemical elements from carbon on up are produced and distributed into interstellar space by stars that explode as supernovae at the ends of their lifetimes,” Simionescu said. “This chemical dispersal continues at progressively larger scales through other mechanisms, such as galactic outflows, interactions and mergers with neighboring galaxies, and stripping caused by a galaxy’s motion through the hot gas filling galaxy clusters.” 

Astronomers study the distribution of the elements of creation during the early moments of the cosmos by shifting through the remains of giant stars that explode at the moment of their death supernovae. The core of a giant star born with more than eight times the mass of the Sun collapses near the end of its lifespan and then expands rapidly in an event called a core-collapse supernova. This rapid expansion scatters elements ranging from oxygen to silicon across the surrounding regions, while other types of supernovae spread elements of creation like iron and nickel across the universe. By surveying a vast region of space, like the Virgo Galaxy Cluster, scientists reconstruct how, when and where the elements of creation were created and distributed during the first moments of the universe.  

Astrophysicists believe the overall elemental composition of a large volume of space depends on the mixture of different supernovae types contributing elements. For example, they have determined the overall chemical makeup of the Sun and solar system required a combination of one Type Ia supernovae for every five core-collapse types.  

“One way to think about this is that we’re looking for the supernova recipe that produced the chemical makeup we see on much larger scales, and comparing it with the recipe for our own sun,” said co-author Norbert Werner, a researcher at the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (KIPAC) at Stanford University in California. 

 Norbert Werner, a researcher at the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (KIPAC) at Stanford University in California
Norbert Werner, a researcher at the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (KIPAC) at Stanford University in California. Credits: KIPAC/NASA/Stanford University

Werner led an earlier study using Suzaku that showed iron was distributed evenly throughout the Perseus Galaxy Cluster. The new Suzuka data provided by the study led by Simionescu and her team shows iron, magnesium, silicon and sulfur spread evenly across the Virgo Galaxy Cluster. The elemental ratios obtained during the study are constant across the entire volume of the cluster and roughly consistent with the levels detected in the composition of the Sun and stars in the Milky Way. Extrapolated to the larger cosmos, scientists believe this shows the elements of creation were mixed well during the early moments of the cosmos over ten billion years ago.   

“This means that elements so important to life on Earth are available, on average, in similar relative proportions throughout the bulk of the universe,” explained Simionescu. “In other words, the chemical requirements for life are common throughout the cosmos.” 

Launched on July 10, 2005, the Suzaku mission showed us things about the universe during a space journey lasting over five times its intended lifespan, to become the longest-operating Japanese x-ray observatory in history. A space collaboration between Japan’s Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and NASA, the Suzaku X-ray Satellite scanned the x-ray cosmos until retiring from space service on August 26, 2015. Leaving a legacy of revolutionary x-ray discoveries its successor ASTRO-H (HITOMI), Japan’s sixth x-ray astronomy satellite is currently adding to since its launch in February 2016. 

What’s next?

Suzaku provided us with a decade of revolutionary measurements,” said Robert Petre, chief of Goddard’s X-ray Astrophysics Laboratory. “We’re building on that legacy right now with its successor, ASTRO-H, Japan’s sixth X-ray astronomy satellite, and we’re working toward its launch in 2016.” 

Artist concept of Hitomi Credits: Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). Credits: NASA/JAXA
Artist concept of Hitomi
Credits: Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). Credits: NASA/JAXA

Proving the saying, “Old Japanese x-ray satellites don’t retire, they sit back and keep watching the show.” 

Learn more about the birth and evolution of black holes and other stellar objects over 11 billion years ago.

Learn and understand more about the clues the Hubble Space Telescope has uncovered about the formation of the Milky Way galaxy.

Learn more about the things scientists have discovered about the crucible of the building blocks of life on Earth.

Take the space voyage of NASA here

Learn more about JAXA

Learn more about the discoveries of the Suzaku X-ray Satellite here

Read and discover more about HITOMI (ASTRO-H)

Learn more about the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (KIPAC) at Stanford University in California here

Discover more about the Virgo Galaxy Cluster

 

 

 

Feedback Mechanisms of Actively Feeding Supermassive Black Holes

Can blow star-forming gas 1000 light-years out of core region of host galaxies 

This artist's rendering shows a galaxy being cleared of interstellar gas, the building blocks of new stars. New X-ray observations by Suzaku have identified a wind emanating from the black hole's accretion disk (inset) that ultimately drives such outflows. Credits: ESA/ATG Medialab
This artist’s rendering shows a galaxy being cleared of interstellar gas, the building blocks of new stars. New X-ray observations by Suzaku have identified a wind emanating from the black hole’s accretion disk (inset) that ultimately drives such outflows.
Credits: ESA/ATG Medialab

Space news (astrophysics: evolution of galaxies; feedback mechanisms) – about 2.3 billion years ago in a galaxy far, far away and standing in a fierce, 2 million mile per hour (3 million kilometers per hour) outflow of star-forming gas – 

Astrophysicists studying the evolution of galaxies using the Suzaku X-ray satellite and the European Space Agency’s Herschel Infrared Space Observatory have found evidence suggesting supermassive black holes significantly influence the evolution of their host galaxies. They found data pointing to winds near a monster black hole blowing star-forming gas over 1,000 light-years from the galaxy center. Enough material to form around 800 stars with the mass of our own Sol. 

“This is the first study directly connecting a galaxy’s actively ‘feeding’ black hole to features found at much larger physical scales,” said lead researcher Francesco Tombesi, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and the University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP). “We detect the wind arising from the luminous disk of gas very close to the black hole, and we show that it’s responsible for blowing star-forming gas out of the galaxy’s central regions.” 

The artist’s view of galaxy IRAS F11119+3257 (F11119) above shows 3 million miles per hour winds produced near the supermassive black hole at its center heating and dispersing cold, dense molecular clouds that could form new stars. Astronomers believe these winds are part of a feedback mechanism that blows star-forming gas from galaxy centers, forever altering the structure and evolution of their host galaxy.  

A red-filter image of IRAS F11119+3257 (inset) from the University of Hawaii's 2.2-meter telescope shows faint features that may be tidal debris, a sign of a galaxy merger. Background: A wider view of the region from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Credits: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/SDSS/S. Veilleux
A red-filter image of IRAS F11119+3257 (inset) from the University of Hawaii’s 2.2-meter telescope shows faint features that may be tidal debris, a sign of a galaxy merger. Background: A wider view of the region from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.
Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/SDSS/S. Veilleux

Astronomers have been studying the Monster of the Milky Way, the supermassive black hole with an estimated mass six million times that of Sol thought to reside at the center of our galaxy, for years. The monster black hole at the core of F11119 is thought to contain around 16 million times the mass of Sol. The accretion disk surrounding this supermassive black hole is measured at hundreds of times the diameter of our solar system. The 170 million miles per hour (270 million kilometers per hour) winds emanating from its accretion disk push the star-forming dust out of the central regions of the galaxy. Producing a steady flow of cold gas over a thousand light-years across traveling at around 2 million mph (3 million kph) and moving a volume of mass equal to around 800 Suns. 

Astrophysicists have been searching for clues to a possible correlation between the masses of a galaxy’s central supermassive black hole and its galactic bulge. They have observed galaxies with more massive black holes generally, have bulges with proportionately larger stellar mass. The steady flow of material out of the central regions of galaxy F11119 and into the galactic bulge could help explain this correlation. 

“These connections suggested the black hole was providing some form of feedback that modulated star formation in the wider galaxy, but it was difficult to see how,” said team member Sylvain Veilleux, an astronomy professor at UMCP. “With the discovery of powerful molecular outflows of cold gas in galaxies with active black holes, we began to uncover the connection.” 

“The black hole is ingesting gas as fast as it can and is tremendously heating the accretion disk, allowing it to produce about 80 percent of the energy this galaxy emits,” said co-author Marcio Meléndez, a research associate at UMCP. “But the disk is so luminous some of the gas accelerates away from it, creating the X-ray wind we observe.” 

tidal_disruption_art_as
In this artist’s rendering, a thick accretion disk has formed around a supermassive black hole following the tidal disruption of a star that wandered too close. Stellar debris has fallen toward the black hole and collected into a thick chaotic disk of hot gas. Flashes of X-ray light near the center of the disk result in light echoes that allow astronomers to map the structure of the funnel-like flow, revealing for the first time strong gravity effects around a normally quiescent black hole. Credits: NASA/Swift/Aurore Simonnet, Sonoma State University

The accretion disk wind and associated molecular outflow of cold gas could be the final pieces astronomers have been looking for in the puzzle explaining supermassive black hole feedback. Watch this video animation of the workings of supermassive black hole feedback in quasars

Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. As matter falls toward the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center, some of it is accelerated outward at nearly the speed of light along jets pointed in opposite directions. When one of the jets happens to be aimed in the direction of Earth, as illustrated here, the galaxy appears especially bright and is classified as a blazar. Credits: M. Weiss/CfA
Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. As matter falls toward the supermassive black hole at the galaxy’s center, some of it is accelerated outward at nearly the speed of light along jets pointed in opposite directions. When one of the jets happens to be aimed in the direction of Earth, as illustrated here, the galaxy appears especially bright and is classified as a blazar.
Credits: M. Weiss/CfA

When the supermassive black hole’s most active, it clears cold gas and dust from the center of the galaxy and shuts down star formation in this region. It also allows shorter-wavelength light to escape from the accretion disk of the black hole astronomers can study to learn more. We’ll keep you updated on any additional discoveries. 

What’s the conclusion?

Astrophysicists conclude F11119 could be an early evolutionary phase of a quasar, a type of active galactic nuclei (AGN) with extreme emissions across a broad spectrum. Computer simulations show the supermassive black hole should eventually consume the gas and dust in its accretion disk and then its activity should lessen. Leaving a less active galaxy with little gas and a comparatively low level of star formation. 

Blazar 3C 279's historic gamma-ray flare can be seen in these images from the Large Area Telescope (LAT) on NASA's Fermi satellite. Both images show gamma rays with energies from 100 million to 100 billion electron volts (eV). For comparison, visible light has energies between 2 and 3 eV. Left: A week-long exposure ending June 10, before the eruption. Right: An exposure for the following week, including the flare. 3C 279 is brighter than the Vela pulsar, normally the brightest object in the gamma-ray sky. The scale bar at left shows an angular distance of 10 degrees, which is about the width of a clenched fist at arm's length. Credits: NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration
Blazar 3C 279’s historic gamma-ray flare can be seen in these images from the Large Area Telescope (LAT) on NASA’s Fermi satellite. Both images show gamma rays with energies from 100 million to 100 billion electron volts (eV). For comparison, visible light has energies between 2 and 3 eV. Left: A week-long exposure ending June 10, before the eruption. Right: An exposure for the following week, including the flare. 3C 279 is brighter than the Vela pulsar, normally the brightest object in the gamma-ray sky. The scale bar at left shows an angular distance of 10 degrees, which is about the width of a clenched fist at arm’s length.
Credits: NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration

Astrophysicists and scientists look forward to detecting and studying feedback mechanisms connected with the growth and evolution of supermassive black holes using the enhanced ability of ASTRO-H. A joint space partnership between Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency (ISAS/JAXA) and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Suzaku’s successors expected to lift the veil surrounding this mystery even more and lay the foundation for one day understanding a little more about the universe and its mysteries.

Watch an animation made by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center showing how black hole feedback works in quasars here.

Journey across the cosmos with NASA

Learn more about the universe you live in with the ESA here

Read and learn more about supermassive black holes feedback mechanisms

Read and learn what astronomers have discovered concerning AGN here

Read more about galaxy IRAS F11119+3257

Discover ASTRO-H here

Learn about the discoveries of the Suzaku X-ray Satellite. 

Discover Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency here

Discover NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Learn more about the European Space Agency’s Herschel Infrared Space Observatory here. 

Learn what astronomers have discovered about the Monster of the Milky Way.