Supermassive Black Hole in Small Galaxy NGC 5195 Burps After a Meal

Producing a super powerful blast observed by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory

The main panel of this graphic shows M51 in visible light data from the Hubble Space Telescope (red, green, and blue). The box at the top of the image outlines the field of view by Chandra in the latest study, which focuses on the smaller component of M51, NGC 5195. The inset to the right shows the details of the Chandra data (blue) of this region. Researchers found a pair of arcs in X-ray emission close to the center of the galaxy, which they interpret as two outbursts from the galaxy’s supermassive black hole (see annotated image for additional information). Credits: NASA/Chandra

Space news (February 22, 2016) – 26 million light-years from Earth, deep within the Messier 51 galaxy system – 

Astronomers using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory recently caught the supermassive black hole in galaxy NGC 5195 burping after a meal composed of gas and maybe even stars. This giant black hole is one of the closest to Earth that’s currently erupting violent blasts of X-rays. Studying these violent outbursts presents an opportunity to learn more about the processes creating some of the most energetic events observed in the cosmos. 

“For an analogy, astronomers often refer to black holes as ‘eating’ stars and gas.  Apparently, black holes can also burp after their meal,” said Eric Schlegel of The University of Texas at San Antonio, who led the study. “Our observation is important because this behavior would likely happen very often in the early universe, altering the evolution of galaxies. It is common for big black holes to expel gas outward, but rare to have such a close, resolved view of these events.” 

A smaller companion galaxy, NGC 5195 is currently merging with a larger spiral galaxy NGC 5194 (The Whirlpool). Astronomers believe this ongoing merger was the trigger for the two arcs of X-ray emission they originally detected near its center. The energy released as the supermassive black hole expelled material outward into the cosmos would be sufficient to produce the X-ray arcs detected. Material that was part of the original gas that was funneled toward the supermassive black hole as the two galaxies interacted over millions of years would suffice. 

“We think these arcs represent fossils from two enormous blasts when the black hole expelled material outward into the galaxy,” said co-author Christine Jones of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Cambridge, Mass. “This activity is likely to have had a big effect on the galactic landscape.” 

Astronomers followed up the original observations of these arcs by Chandra using the 0.9-meter telescope at the Kitt Peak National Observatory. They detected a slender region of emission of relatively cool hydrogen gas in an optical image suggesting X-ray emitting gas swept up hydrogen gas from the center of the galaxy. Scientists call this phenomenon by which a supermassive black hole changes its host galaxy “feedback”. 

In the case of the X-ray glowing arcs astronomers observed coming from the region of the supermassive black hole in the center of companion galaxy NGC 5195. Scientists believe the outer arc plowed up enough gas and material to start the formation of new stars over a period of three to six million years. This points to the “feedback” phenomenon being a process of creation in the universe, not just massive destruction.  

“We think that feedback keeps galaxies from becoming too large,” said co-author Marie Machacek of CfA. “But at the same time, it can be responsible for how some stars form. This shows that black holes can create, not just destroy.” 

Astrophysicists also want to study the blasts emanating from near the supermassive black hole because of their location in galaxy NGC 5195. In previously detected active supermassive black holes in other galaxies, rapid outflows haven’t been detected in regions this far out. It could be possible we’re viewing an intermediate stage in the feedback process operating between the black hole and interstellar gas. 

Study continues

Scientists will continue to study the powerful blasts coming from the supermassive black hole at the center of galaxy NGC 5195. This will allow them to gain knowledge on how these massive blasts change the environment of their home galaxy. It will also allow them to study how these powerful blasts would alter the evolution of a galaxy.  

Take a video tour of dwarf galaxy NGC 5195 aboard the Chandra X-ray Observatory here.

Read about the recent observation of gravitational waves by astronomers using the Chandra X-ray Observatory. 

Learn more about the youngest, nearby black hole candidate.

Learn more about mysterious ripples astronomers detected moving across the planet-forming region of a star.

We’ll update you if they detect any after burps from the supermassive black hole. 

You can learn more about NASA and its future plans here

Discover the Chandra X-ray Observatory here

Learn more about galaxy NGC 5195

Learn more about active supermassive black holes