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.

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Rear-end Collisions Between High-speed Knots in Relativistic Jet

Produces shocks that accelerate particles, illuminating the colliding material 

The Hubble Space Telescope took this image of the core region of galaxy NGC 3862 with relativistic jet of material visible as line of light in the 3 o'clock position. Images to the right show knots of material outlined in blue, red and green moving along the jet over two decades. X marks the supermassive black hole. Credits: NASA/ESA/Hubble
The Hubble Space Telescope took this image of the core region of galaxy NGC 3862 with relativistic jet of material visible as line of light in the 3 o’clock position. Images to the right show knots of material outlined in blue, red and green moving along the jet over two decades. X marks the supermassive black hole.
Credits: NASA/ESA/Hubble

Space news (astrophysics: relativistic jets; shock collisions inside particle jets) – Observing plasma jet blasting from supermassive black hole in core of galaxy NGC 3862, 260 million light-years from Earth toward the constellation Leo in the rich galaxy cluster Abell 1367 –

Astronomers recently made an interesting discovery while studying data collected by the Hubble Space Telescope over two decades of observing the core of elliptical galaxy NGC 3862.  They were originally looking to create a time-lapse video of a relativistic jet blasting from the supermassive black hole thought to reside within its core. Instead, they discovered a rear-end collision between two separate high-speed waves of material ejected by a monster black hole whose mass astronomers have yet to measure. In this case, scientists believe the rear-end collision accelerated and heated particles which illuminated the colliding material for Hubble to see.

The relativistic jet erupting from the accretion disk of the supermassive black hole thought to reside at the core of galaxy NGC 3862 is one of the most studied and therefore best understood. It’s also one of the few active galaxies with jets observed in visible light. It appears to stream out of the accretion disk at speeds several times the speed of light, but this is just a visual illusion referred to as superluminal motion created by the combination of insanely fast velocities and our line of sight being almost on point. It forms a narrow beam hundreds of light-years in length that eventually begins to spread out like a cone, before forming clumps at around 1,000 light-years. Clumps scientists study looking for clues pointing to facts they can use to learn more about these plasma jets and the cosmos.

Astronomers have observed knots of material being ejected from dense stellar objects previously during the human journey to the beginning of space and time. This is one of the few times they have detected knots with an optical telescope thousands of light-years from a supermassive black hole. It’s the certainly the first time we have detected a rear-end collision between separately ejected knots in a relativistic jet. 

“Something like this has never been seen before in an extragalactic jet,” said Eileen Meyer of NASA’s Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI). “As the knots continue merging they will brighten further in the coming decades. This will allow us a very rare opportunity to see how the energy of the collision is dissipated into radiation.”

What would cause successive jets of material to achieve varying speeds? One theory involves the idea of material falling onto the supermassive black hole being superheated and ejected along its spin axis. Ejected material is constrained by the powerful magnetic fields surrounding the monster black hole into a narrow beam. If the flow of falling material isn’t perfectly smooth, knots are ejected in a string, rather than a continuous beam or steady hose.

It’s possible knots ejected later travel through a less dense interstellar medium, which would result in varying speeds. In this scenario, a knot launched after another knot would eventually catch up and rear-end it. 

Beyond learning knots of material ejected in plasma jets erupting from the accretion disk of a supermassive black hole sometimes rear-end each other, astronomers are interested in this second case of superluminal motion observed in jets hundreds, thousands of light-years from the source supermassive black hole. This indicates the jets are still moving at nearly the speed of light at distances rivaling the scale of the host galaxy and still contain tremendous energy. Understanding this could help astronomers determine more about the evolution of galaxies as the cosmos ages, including our own Milky Way.

Astronomers are also trying to figure out why galaxy NGC 3862 is one of the few they have detected jets in optical wavelengths? They haven’t been able to come up with any good theories on why some jets are detected in visible light and others aren’t. 

Work goes on

Work at the institute continues. Meyer is currently working on additional videos using Hubble images of other relativistic jets in nearby galaxies to try to detect superluminal motion. This is only possible due to the longevity of the Hubble Space Telescope and ingenuity of engineers and scientists from NASA and the ESA. Hopefully, they could discover more clues to answer these questions and other mysteries gnawing at the corner of my mind.

Watch this video made by Eileen Meyer of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland using archival data from two decades of Hubble Space Telescope observations of galaxy NGC 3862.

Read about magnetic lines of force NASA astronomers viewed emanating from a supermassive black hole 900 million light-years from Earth.

Read and learn more about how astronomers study the formation of stars in the Milky Way.

Read about a runaway star discovered traveling across the Tarantula Nebula.

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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.

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WISE Data Pokes Holes in Unified Theory of Active, Supermassive Black Holes

Survey of 170,000 supermassive black holes says “we need to re-examine present theory” 

WISE's large field of view and multi-wavelength infrared sight allowed it to form this complete view of the cluster, containing dozens of bright galaxies and hundreds of smaller ones. Old stars show up at the shorter infrared wavelengths, color coded blue. Dust heated by new generations of stars lights up at longer infrared wavelengths, colored red here. The center of the cluster is dominated by the galaxy known as NGC 1399, a large spheroidal galaxy whose light is almost exclusively from old stars and thus appears blue. The most spectacular member of Fornax is the galaxy known as NGC 1365, a giant barred spiral galaxy, located in the lower right of the mosaic. Against a backdrop of blue light from old stars, the dusty spiral arms in NGC 1365 stand out. The arms contain younger stars that are heating up their dust-enshrouded birth clouds, causing them to glow at longer infrared wavelengths. This galaxy is one of only a few in the Fornax cluster where prolific star formation can be seen. WISE will search the sky out to distances of 10 billion light-years looking for the most luminous cousins of NGC 1365. In this image, 3.4- and 4.6-micron light is colored blue; 12-micron light is green; and 22-micron light is red.
WISE’s large field of view and multi-wavelength infrared sight allowed it to form this complete view of the cluster, containing dozens of bright galaxies and hundreds of smaller ones. Old stars show up at the shorter infrared wavelengths, color coded blue. Dust heated by new generations of stars lights up at longer infrared wavelengths, colored red here.
The center of the cluster is dominated by the galaxy known as NGC 1399, a large spheroidal galaxy whose light is almost exclusively from old stars and thus appears blue. In this image, 3.4- and 4.6-micron light is colored blue; 12-micron light is green; and 22-micron light is red. Credits: WISE. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/NOAO/AURA/NSF/ESO
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This infographic explains a popular theory of active supermassive black holes, referred to as the unified model — and how new data from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, is at conflict with the model. Astronomers say the model could still be correct but needs adjusting to account for the unexpected observations by WISE. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/NOAO/AURA/NSF/ESO

Space news (astrophysics: Unified Theory of Active, Supermassive Black Holes; rethinking the present theory) – supermassive black holes scattered around the cosmos –

One common theme in astronomy and science is “the more we test a current theory, the more we need to re-examine our ideas and thoughts”. Theory one day is tomorrows’ old idea. Astronomers looking at archived WISE data found this out the other day. After examining data collected by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, they determined varying appearances of similar supermassive black holes could be a more complicated than present theory indicates. That it could be time to rethink the Unified Theory of Active, Supermassive Black holes, now that we have a little data to base our ideas and theories on. 

The Unified Theory of Active, Supermassive Black Holes was first proposed in the late 1970s to explain the different appearance of active supermassive black holes with similar natures. Why some active monsters appear to be shrouded by dust and gas, while others are more exposed and easier to view. 

“The main purpose of unification was to put a zoo of different kinds of active nuclei under a single umbrella,” said Emilio Donoso of the Instituto de Ciencias Astronómicas, de la Tierra y del Espacio in Argentina. “Now, that has become increasingly complex to do as we dig deeper into the WISE data.” 

This theory answered this query by suggesting all supermassive black holes are encased in a dusty, doughnut-shaped structure called a torus. That the appearance of the supermassive black hole and torus is dependent on the orientation of the system in space in relation to Earth. For instance, if the torus is viewed edge-on in relation to Earth, the supermassive black hole is hidden from view. However, if the torus is viewed from above or below, the monster within is visible. 

“The unified theory was proposed to explain the complexity of what astronomers were seeing,” said Daniel Stern of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. “It seems that simple model may have been too simple. As Einstein said, models should be made ‘as simple as possible, but not simpler.” 

Daniel Stern NuSTAR Project Scientist. Credits: NASA
Daniel Stern
NuSTAR Project Scientist. Credits: NASA

Time to rethink the theory

WISE data collected before it was put on standby in 2011 indicates The Unified Theory of Active, Supermassive Black Holes isn’t the whole story and needs to be re-examined. That something other than the shape of the structures surrounding supermassive black holes determines whether a monster is viewable from Earth. Astronomers working on theories concerning supermassive black holes are looking at the data and thinking of new ways for supermassive black holes surrounded by structures of dust and gas to become visible from Earth. They hope their work and findings inspire further study and investment in uncovering more clues to the mysteries surrounding supermassive black holes and understanding of these enigmatic, yet fascinating objects.  

“Our finding revealed a new feature about active black holes we never knew before, yet the details remain a mystery,” said Lin Yan of NASA’s Infrared Processing and Analysis Center (IPAC), based at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “We hope our work will inspire future studies to better understand these fascinating objects.” 

Proving scientific theory prescribes usage of the old adage, “the more things change, the more they stay the same” when developing theories. 

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Wolf-Rayet Star “Nasty 1” Transitional Stage in Evolution of Massive Stars

A very rapidly evolving, supermassive star with a newly formed nebula only a few thousand years old

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Space news (supermassive stars: Wolf-Rayet stars; star NaSt1) – 3,000 light-years away on the edge of a pancake-shaped disk of gas moving at 22,000 mph – 

Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have discovered new clues concerning a nearby supermassive, rapidly aging star they have nicknamed “Nasty 1”. Designated NaSt1 in astronomy catalogs, “Nasty 1” when first discovered decades ago was identified as a non-typical Wolf-Rayet star with an orbiting disk-like structure. A vast disk estimated to be almost 2 trillion miles wide astronomers now think formed due to a companion star snacking on its outer envelope. Putting NaSt1 in a class of Wolf-Rayet stars astronomers haven’t observed often during the human journey to the beginning of space and time. A star type possibly representing a transition stage in the evolution of supermassive stars. 

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“We were excited to see this disk-like structure because it may be evidence for a Wolf-Rayet star-forming from a binary interaction,” said study leader Jon Mauerhan of the University of California, Berkeley. “There are very few examples in the galaxy of this process in action because this phase is short-lived, perhaps lasting only a hundred thousand years, while the timescale over which a resulting disk is visible could be only ten thousand years or less.” 

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Study leader Jon Mauerhan of the University of California, Berkley. Credit: University of California, Berkley.

In the case of NaSt1, computer simulations show a supermassive star evolving really fast and swelling as it begins to run out of hydrogen. Its outer hydrogen envelope is loosely bound and is gravitationally stripped from the star- astronomers call this process stellar cannibalism – by a more compact, nearby companion star. In the process the more compact star gains mass, while the more massive star loses its hydrogen envelope, exposing its helium core and eventually becoming a Wolf-Rayet star. 

The mass-transfer model is the favored process for how Wolf-Rayet stars evolve at the moment and considering at least 70 percent of supermassive stars detected, so far, are members of binary star system, this seems logical. Astronomers used to think this type of star could also form when a massive sun ejects its hydrogen envelope. But the direct mass loss model by itself can’t account for the number of Wolf-Rayet stars observed relative to less-evolved supermassive suns in the Milky Way.  

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“We’re finding that it is hard to form all the Wolf-Rayet stars we observe by the traditional wind mechanism because the mass loss isn’t as strong as we used to think,” said Nathan Smith of the University of Arizona in Tucson, who is a co-author on the new NaSt1 paper. “Mass exchange in binary systems seems to be vital to account for Wolf-Rayet stars and the supernovae they make, and catching binary stars in this short-lived phase will help us understand this process.” 

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Co-author of study Nathan Smith of the University of Arizona in Tucson. Credit: The University of Arizona.

Astronomers computer models show that the mass-transfer process isn’t always perfectly efficient. Matter can only transfer from NaSt1 at a certain rate, left over material begins orbiting, creating a disk-like structure. 

“That’s what we think is happening in Nasty 1,” Mauerhan said. “We think there is a Wolf-Rayet star buried inside the nebula, and we think the nebula is being created by this mass-transfer process. So this type of sloppy stellar cannibalism actually makes Nasty 1 a rather fitting nickname.” 

Observing Nasty 1 (star NaSt1) through the clock of gas and dust surrounding this star system hasn’t been easy. The intervening disk-like structure even blocks the view of the Hubble Space Telescope. Scientists haven’t been able to measure the distance between the stars, their mass, or the volume of material transferring to the smaller companion star.  

Astronomers have been able to discover a few items concerning the disk-like structure surrounding Nasty 1. Measurements indicate it’s traveling at around 22,000 mph in the outer nebula, a slower speed than recorded in other stars of this type. Scientists think this indicates a much less energetic supernova than was recorded for other events, like Era Carinae. In this case and other similar stars, the gas in the outer nebula has been recorded in the hundreds of thousands of miles per hour. Nasty 1 could be different supernova animal altogether.  

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High atop the Cerro Manqui peak at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile the twin the Walter Baade Telescope is the first of the twin 6.5-meter Magellan telescopes to be completed. Credit: Ico.cl

Nasty 1 could also lose its outer envelope of hydrogen intermittently. Previous studies in the infrared light provided clues indicating the existence of a dense pocket of hot gas and dust close to the central stars in the region. More recent observations using the Magellan Telescope located at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile has also detected a bigger pocket of cooler gas and dust possibly indirectly blocking light from these stars. Astronomers think the existence of warm dust in the region implies it formed just recently, perhaps intermittently, as elementally enriched matter from the stellar winds of massive stars collides, mixes, flows away, and cools. Irregular stellar wind strength, the rate at which star NaSt1 loses its outer envelope, could also help explain the observed clumpy structure and gaps noted in the outer regions of the disk.  

Astrophysicists used NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory to measure the hypersonic winds screaming from each star. Readings showed a scorching hot plasma, indicating colliding stellar winds producing high-energy shockwaves that glow in X-rays. This is consistent with previous data collected on other evolving Wolf-Rayet star systems. We’ll get a better view once the outer hydrogen of Nasty 1’s (star NaSt1) depleted, and the mass-transfer process completes. Eventually, the gas and dust in the lumpy, disk-like structure will dissipate, giving us a clearer view of this mysterious binary star system.   

 

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NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory has shown the cosmos is full of objects and events far beyond anything we imagined when we first started the human journey to the beginning of space and time. Credit: NASA/Chandra

Nasty 1’s still evolving!

“What evolutionary path the star will take is uncertain, but it will definitely not be boring,” said Mauerhan. “Nasty 1 could evolve into another Eta Carinae-type system. To make that transformation, the mass-gaining companion star could experience a giant eruption because of some instability related to the acquiring of matter from the newly formed Wolf-Rayet. Or, the Wolf-Rayet could explode as a supernova. A stellar merger is another potential outcome, depending on the orbital evolution of the system. The future could be full of all kinds of exotic possibilities depending on whether it blows up or how long the mass transfer occurs, and how long it lives after the mass transfer ceases.” 

Astronomers continue to study Nasty 1 and its peculiar, unusual disk-like structure looking for clues to explain the mysteries surrounding its origin. 

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A Lonely, Wandering Hermit of a Galaxy

Tells astronomers a thing or two about star birth throughout the cosmos 

A mysterious hermit
Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI

Space news (astrophysics: irregular dwarf galaxies; the formation of new stars) – a lonely, undefined looking galaxy an estimated 4.2 million light-years from Earth, approximately 2.3 million light-years from Leo A –  

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The Sagittarius Dwarf Irregular Galaxy (SagDIG) is a metal-poor galaxy from the dawn of the cosmos. Almost as old as the universe, SagDIG is showing us things about the evolution of everything we see during our journey to the beginning of space and time. Spanning about 1,500 light-years, this ancient star wanderer is about 3.5 million light-years distant toward the constellation Sagittarius.

Astronomers think the chaotic, unusual looking smaller island universe seen in the Hubble Space Telescope image here hasn’t merged with any other galaxies lately. Classified as an irregular dwarf galaxy, UGC 4879 has no obvious form and lacks the magnificent whirl of a spiral galaxy or the coherence of an elliptical. Approximately 1.36 million parsecs from Earth this lonely, wandering hermit of a galaxy is showing astronomers new, interesting things about star birth in the universe

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Irregular dwarf galaxy Leo A seen here has a much more complicated formation history than astronomers first thought. The simple structure astrophysicists were expecting isn’t what we see here. Instead, Leo A shows hints of an evolution just as chaotic and unpredictable as larger island universes. 

Spectral data of UGC 4879 indicates radial velocities for different sections of the galaxy, which could indicate the presence of a stellar disk. This lonely, isolated wanderer is studied closely and intensely by astronomers because of its history of few interactions with other galaxies. This isolation makes it less complicated to piece together its history of star birth and an ideal laboratory for study. 

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Dwarf irregular galaxy NGC 1569 seen here underwent a brief starburst period about 25 million years ago. Hidden within the chaos are monstrous, gigantic supermassive stars and envelopes of gas expelled by huge stars that recently went supernova. Only 11 million light-years away in the long-necked constellation Camelopardalis and spanning 8,000 light-years, the blue, white hot young stars within are perfect for study. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI/Hubble Heritage

Study of UGC 4879 indicates during the first 4 billion years after the beginning of the universe new stars were being born at a pretty fast rate. The next nine billion years of relative inactivity followed by a recent starburst about 1 billion years ago is a puzzle for astronomers. They continue to study this hermit of a galaxy hoping to find out more about both its history and the complex riddles of sun birth across the cosmos.  

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Irregular dwarf galaxy NGC 4449 seen here is undergoing an intense period of starburst, with young, blue-white stars being created at an amazing rate and pinkish star forming regions in this deep colour image. Only 12.5 million light-years away in Canes Venatici, the constellation of the Hunting Dogs, NGC 4449’s the first such galaxy to have an identified star stream in the lower right composed mainly of supermassive red giant stars. These types of galaxies are thought to have a significant dark matter halo, which is a chance for astronomers to study the dark side’s role in the evolution and formation of galaxies. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI 

Read about one of the most massive black holes ever discovered residing in a backwater part of the cosmos.

For the first time in space history the first moments of a supernova caught in visible light.

Read about Chandra observing the supermassive black hole in galaxy Pictor A having a little meal.

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Read a paper on the star formation history of irregular dwarf galaxy UGC 4879 here.

 

New Evidence Suggests Some Early Supermassive Black Holes Formed During the Direct Collapse of a Gas Cloud

 

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Combined data from Spitzer, Hubble and the Chandra X-ray Observatory were used to create this illustration of the direct collapse of a gas cloud into a supermassive black hole. Credit: NASA/Chandra/Spitzer/Hubble/ESA.

The seed out of which some of these mysterious, lurking monsters were born

Space news (astrophysics: black hole formation: early black holes) – supermassive black holes scattered around the observable universe – 

Astronomers believe and data suggests at the center of nearly all large galaxies, including the Milky Way, lurks a supermassive black hole with millions and even billions of times the mass of our sun. Gigantic black holes that in some cases formed less than a billion years after the birth of the cosmos. For the first time, they have uncovered evidence suggesting some of these early supermassive black holes formed directly during the collapse of a giant gas cloud. A finding making astronomers rethink current theories on the formation of these enigmatic, invisible monsters.

 

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This illustration shows a supermassive black hole at the core of a galaxy far, far away. Light skimming past the event horizon (black area) is stretched and distorted like light hitting a fun house mirror.Credits: NASA, ESA, and D. Coe, J. Anderson, and R. van der Marel (STScI)

“Our discovery, if confirmed, explains how these monster black holes were born,” said Fabio Pacucci of Scuola Normale Superiore (SNS) in Pisa, Italy, who led the study. “We found evidence that supermassive black hole seeds can form directly from the collapse of a giant gas cloud, skipping any intermediate steps.”

 

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This Hubble Space Telescope’s spectrograph image shows a zig-zag pattern representing rapidly rotating gas (880, 000 mph) within 26 light-years of the supermassive black hole at the core of galaxy M84. Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble.

Intermediate steps like the formation of a supermassive star and its subsequent destruction during a supernova. Evidence to date suggests black holes are formed during this process and then supermassive black holes are produced by mergers between black holes. But this new finding suggests things get a little weirder than first thought. Maybe things are weirder than we could ever imagine. It could be the first supermassive black holes seeds were intermediate mass black holes, monsters in the 20,000 solar mass range. Watch this YouTube video on black hole formation.

 

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Within the inset region in this composite Hubble and Chandra X-ray image is shown the Monster of the Milky Way -Sagittarius A- A 4 million solar mass supermassive black hole astronomers believe lurks at the core of the Milky Way’s nuclear star cluster. Credit: NASA/ESA/Chandra/Hubble.

Imagine the volume of a gas cloud capable of contracting directly into an object tens times, or more, the mass of Sol. Black hole seeds built up by drawing in cold gas and dust appear to have formed within the first billion years of the cosmos. Maybe once they confirm the existence of the two black hole seeds they think they detected. They can try to get some data on the mass of these early black hole seeds. At the moment, no mass data is available. Watch this YouTube video on black hole seeds.

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This artist’s conception of an estimated 20 million solar mass supermassive black hole at the core of one of the smallest, densest galaxies ever discovered during the human journey to the beginning of space and time. 

The forming of a supermassive black hole directly from the collapse of a massive cloud of gas seems even weirder than the observed formation process for supermassive black holes. But we’re not in Kansas anymore, so anything could theoretically be possible. I am certain, things are even weirder than we can imagine.

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This artist’s conception of two supermassive holes entwined in a death spiral destined to end in the birth of a bigger version of the two monsters is called WISE J233237.05-505643.5. At 3.8 billion light-years this is one of the most distant suspected supermassive black holes binary systems detected. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI.

“There is a lot of controversy over which path these black holes take,” said co-author Andrea Ferrara, also of SNS. “Our work suggests we are narrowing in on an answer, where the black holes start big and grow at the normal rate, rather than starting small and growing at a very fast rate.”

A black hole located in the middle of the spiral galaxy NGC 4178
The inset image in this Chandra X-ray Observatory image of spiral galaxy NGC 4178 shows an X-ray source at the location of a suspected 200,000 solar mass supermassive black hole. This monster is one of the lowest mass supermassive black holes ever detected at the core of a galaxy. Astronomers are studying this supermassive black hole closely since its also located in a galaxy not expected to host such a monster. All of the data collected seems to indicate a slightly different origin, which makes astronomers a little curious. Drredit: NASA/ESA/ Chandra/.

The team used computer models of the formation of black hole seeds combined with new techniques and methods to identify two possible candidates for early supermassive black holes in long-exposure Hubble, Chandra, and Spitzer images. The data collected on these two candidates matches the theoretical profile expected and estimates of their age suggest they formed when the cosmos was less than a billion years old. But more study is needed to verify the data and existence of these theoretical early black hole seeds.

 

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Astronomers recently detected the Monster of the Milky Way -Sagittarius A- snacking on material passing too close, possibly an asteroid. The resulting X-ray flares detected in September 2013 were the largest ever recorded during the human journey to the beginning of space and time, so far. Credit: NASA/ESA/Chandra.

“Black hole seeds are extremely hard to find and confirming their detection is very difficult,” said Andrea Grazian, a co-author from the National Institute for Astrophysics in Italy. “However, we think our research has uncovered the two best candidates to date.”

 

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Astronomers combined X-ray data from Chandra with microwave and visible images to reveal jets and radio-emitting lobes emanating from the 55 million solar mass central supermassive black hole in galaxy Centaurus A (NGC 5128). Credit: NASA/ESA/Chandra.

What’s next?

The team plans additional observations to see if these two candidates have other properties of black hole seeds as computer simulations predict. Real evidence to prove or disprove their early supermassive black hole formation theory might have to wait for a few years. Until the James Webb Space Telescope, European Extremely Large Telescope and other assets come online. The team and other astronomers are currently designing the theoretical framework needed to interpret future data and pinpoint the existence of some of the first supermassive black holes ever to exist. Watch this YouTube video on the jet of Centaurus A.

 

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This optical/radio composite image shows the vast radio-emitting lobes of Centaurus A in orange extending nearly a million light-years from the galaxy. The image of the right here shows the inner 4.16 light-years of the jet and counter-jet of this estimated 55 million solar mass monster. Credit: NASA.

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