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.  

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NASA’s NuSTAR Pinpoints Elusive High-energy X-rays of Supermassive Black Holes in COSMOS Field

Heralding the growth of monster black holes pulling in surrounding material while belching out the cosmic x-ray background 

The blue dots in this field of galaxies, known as the COSMOS field, show galaxies that contain supermassive black holes emitting high-energy X-rays. The black holes were detected by NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Array, or NuSTAR, which spotted 32 such black holes in this field and has observed hundreds across the whole sky so far. The other colored dots are galaxies that host black holes emitting lower-energy X-rays, and were spotted by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory. Chandra data show X-rays with energies between 0.5 to 7 kiloelectron volts, while NuSTAR data show X-rays between 8 to 24 kiloelectron volts. Credits: NASA/Caltech/NuSTAR
The blue dots in this field of galaxies, known as the COSMOS field, show galaxies that contain supermassive black holes emitting high-energy X-rays. The black holes were detected by NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Array, or NuSTAR, which spotted 32 such black holes in this field and has observed hundreds across the whole sky so far.
The other colored dots are galaxies that host black holes emitting lower-energy X-rays,  and were spotted by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. Chandra data show X-rays with energies between 0.5 to 7 kiloelectron volts, while NuSTAR data show X-rays between 8 to 24 kiloelectron volts. Credits: NASA/Caltech/NuSTAR

Space news (astrophysics: x-ray bursts; detecting high-energy x-rays emitted by supermassive black holes) – searching the COSMOS field for elusive, high-energy x-rays with a high-pitched voice – 

The picture is a combination of infrared data from Spitzer (red) and visible-light data (blue and green) from Japan's Subaru telescope atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii. These data were taken as part of the SPLASH (Spitzer large area survey with Hyper-Suprime-Cam) project. Credits: NASA/JPL/Spitzer/Subaru
The picture is a combination of infrared data from Spitzer (red) and visible-light data (blue and green) from Japan’s Subaru telescope atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii. These data were taken as part of the SPLASH (Spitzer large area survey with Hyper-Suprime-Cam) project. Credits: NASA/JPL/Spitzer/Subaru

Astronomers searching for elusive, high-energy x-rays emitted by supermassive black holes recently made a discovery using NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR). A chorus of high-energy x-rays emitted by millions of supermassive black holes hidden within the cores of galaxies spread across a field of galaxies called the COSMOS field. Singing the elusive, high-pitched song of a phenomenon scientists call the cosmic x-ray background they emitted when they pulled surrounding matter closer. A significant step in resolving the high-energy x-ray background and understanding more about the feeding habits of supermassive black holes as they grow and evolve. 

NuSTAR scans the sky looking at nine galaxies for supermassive black holes. Credits: NASA/NuSTAR/JPL/Caltech
NuSTAR scans the sky looking at nine galaxies for supermassive black holes. Credits: NASA/NuSTAR/JPL/Caltech

“We’ve gone from resolving just two percent of the high-energy X-ray background to 35 percent,” said Fiona Harrison, the principal investigator of NuSTAR at Caltech in Pasadena and lead author of a new study describing the findings in an upcoming issue of The Astrophysical Journal.  “We can see the most obscured black holes, hidden in thick gas and dust.” 

Fiona Harrison, the principal investigator of NuSTAR, has been awarded the top prize in high-energy astrophysics. Image credit: Lance Hayashida/Caltech Marcomm
Fiona Harrison, the principal investigator of NuSTAR, has been awarded the top prize in high-energy astrophysics. Image credit: Lance Hayashida/Caltech Marcomm

The Monster of the Milky Way, the supermassive black hole believed to reside at the core of our galaxy, bulked up by siphoning off surrounding gas and dust in the past and will continue to grow. The data obtained here by NASA’s NuSTAR will help scientists learn more concerning the growth and evolution of black holes and our host galaxy. It will also give astrophysicists more insight into the processes involved the next time the Monster of the Milky Way wakes up and decides to have a little snack. 

This image, not unlike a pointillist painting, shows the star-studded centre of the Milky Way towards the constellation of Sagittarius. The crowded centre of our galaxy contains numerous complex and mysterious objects that are usually hidden at optical wavelengths by clouds of dust — but many are visible here in these infrared observations from Hubble. However, the most famous cosmic object in this image still remains invisible: the monster at our galaxy’s heart called Sagittarius A*. Astronomers have observed stars spinning around this supermassive black hole (located right in the centre of the image), and the black hole consuming clouds of dust as it affects its environment with its enormous gravitational pull. Infrared observations can pierce through thick obscuring material to reveal information that is usually hidden to the optical observer. This is the best infrared image of this region ever taken with Hubble, and uses infrared archive data from Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3, taken in September 2011. It was posted to Flickr by Gabriel Brammer, a fellow at the European Southern Observatory based in Chile. He is also an ESO photo ambassador.
This image, not unlike a pointillist painting, shows the star-studded centre of the Milky Way towards the constellation of Sagittarius. The crowded centre of our galaxy contains numerous complex and mysterious objects that are usually hidden at optical wavelengths by clouds of dust — but many are visible here in these infrared observations from Hubble. However, the most famous cosmic object in this image still remains invisible: the monster at our galaxy’s heart called Sagittarius A*. Astronomers have observed stars spinning around this supermassive black hole (located right in the centre of the image), and the black hole consuming clouds of dust as it affects its environment with its enormous gravitational pull. Infrared observations can pierce through thick obscuring material to reveal information that is usually hidden to the optical observer. This is the best infrared image of this region ever taken with Hubble, and uses infrared archive data from Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3, taken in September 2011. It was posted to Flickr by Gabriel Brammer, a fellow at the European Southern Observatory based in Chile. He is also an ESO photo ambassador.

“Before NuSTAR, the X-ray background in high energies was just one blur with no resolved sources,” said Harrison. “To untangle what’s going on, you have to pinpoint and count up the individual sources of the X-rays.” 

NASA’s NuSTAR’s the first telescope capable of focusing high-energy x-rays into a sharp image, but it only gives us part of the picture. Additional research’s required to clear up the picture a little more and give us a better view of the real singers in the choir. NuSTAR should allow astronomers to decipher individual voices of x-ray singers in one of the cosmos’ rowdiest choirs. 

“We knew this cosmic choir had a strong high-pitched component, but we still don’t know if it comes from a lot of smaller, quiet singers, or a few with loud voices,” said co-author Daniel Stern, the project scientist for NuSTAR at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “Now, thanks to NuSTAR, we’re gaining a better understanding of the black holes and starting to address these questions.” 

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

What’s next?

Astronomers plan on collecting more data on the high-energy x-ray choir of the COSMOS field, which should help clear up a few mysteries surrounding the birth, growth, and evolution of black holes. Hopefully, it gives also gives us more clues to many of the mysteries we discover during the human journey to the beginning of space and time. 

Read more about active supermassive black holes found at the center of galaxies.

Learn more about the Unified Theory of Active Supermassive Black Holes.

Learn about magnetic lines of force emanating from supermassive black holes.

You can learn more about the COSMOS field here

Journey across spacetime aboard the telescopes of NASA

Discover NASA’s NuSTAR here

Learn more about the work of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Read and learn more about the Monster of the Milky Way here

 

 

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
pia18013-full
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. 

You can learn more about the United Theory of Active, Supermassive Black holes here

Take the space journey of NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer

Read and learn more about supermassive black holes here

Learn more about the work being done by scientists and engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Discover and learn about the current mission of WISE, after being reactivated and renamed NEOWISE in 2013, and given the job of identifying potentially dangerous objects near Earth here

Learn how astronomers study the formation of stars.

Learn about the formation of the first black holes to exist in the cosmos.

Read about NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory’s observations of blasts from galaxy Pictor A.

 

WISE Infrared All-Sky Survey Reveals Millions of Supermassive Black Hole Candidates

Plus nearly a thousand extremely bright, dusty objects nicknamed hot DOGS 

With its all-sky infrared survey, NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, has identified millions of quasar candidates. Quasars are supermassive black holes with masses millions to billions times greater than our sun. The black holes "feed" off surrounding gas and dust, pulling the material onto them. As the material falls in on the black hole, it becomes extremely hot and extremely bright. This image zooms in on one small region of the WISE sky, covering an area about three times larger than the moon. The WISE quasar candidates are highlighted with yellow circles. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA
With its all-sky infrared survey, NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, has identified millions of quasar candidates. Quasars are supermassive black holes with masses millions to billions times greater than our sun. The black holes “feed” off surrounding gas and dust, pulling the material onto them. As the material falls in on the black hole, it becomes extremely hot and extremely bright. This image zooms in on one small region of the WISE sky, covering an area about three times larger than the moon. The WISE quasar candidates are highlighted with yellow circles.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

Space news (All-sky surveys: infrared; candidate supermassive black holes and dust-obscured galaxies) – The visible universe – 

Astronomers working with data provided by an infrared survey of the visible sky conducted by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) have identified millions of new candidates for the quasar section in the Galaxy Zoo. All-sky images taken by WISE revealed around 2.5 million candidate supermassive black holes actively feeding on material, some over 10 billion light-years away. They also pinpointed nearly a 1,000 very bright, extremely dusty objects nicknamed hot DOGS believed to be among the brightest galaxies discovered during the human journey to the beginning of space and time.

The entire sky as mapped by WISE at infrared wavelengths is shown here, with an artist's concept of the WISE satellite superimposed. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA
The entire sky as mapped by WISE at infrared wavelengths is shown here, with an artist’s concept of the WISE satellite superimposed.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

“These dusty, cataclysmically forming galaxies are so rare WISE had to scan the entire sky to find them,” said Peter Eisenhardt, lead author of the paper on the first of these bright, dusty galaxies, and project scientist for WISE at JPL. “We are also seeing evidence that these record setters may have formed their black holes before the bulk of their stars. The ‘eggs’ may have come before the ‘chickens.” 

Dr. Hashima Hasan is the James Webb Space Telescope Program Scientist and the Education and Public Outreach Lead for Astrophysics. Credits: NASA/JWST
Dr. Hashima Hasan is the James Webb Space Telescope Program Scientist and the Education and Public Outreach Lead for Astrophysics. Credits: NASA/JWST

“WISE has exposed a menagerie of hidden objects,” said Hashima Hasan, WISE program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “We’ve found an asteroid dancing ahead of Earth in its orbit, the coldest star-like orbs known and now, supermassive black holes and galaxies hiding behind cloaks of dust.” 

This artist's concept illustrates a quasar, or feeding black hole, similar to APM 08279+5255, where astronomers discovered huge amounts of water vapor. Gas and dust likely form a torus around the central black hole, with clouds of charged gas above and below. X-rays emerge from the very central region, while thermal infrared radiation is emitted by dust throughout most of the torus. While this figure shows the quasar's torus approximately edge-on, the torus around APM 08279+5255 is likely positioned face-on from our point of view. Image credit: NASA/ESA
This artist’s concept illustrates a quasar, or feeding black hole, similar to APM 08279+5255, where astronomers discovered huge amounts of water vapor. Gas and dust likely form a torus around the central black hole, with clouds of charged gas above and below. X-rays emerge from the very central region, while thermal infrared radiation is emitted by dust throughout most of the torus. While this figure shows the quasar’s torus approximately edge-on, the torus around APM 08279+5255 is likely positioned face-on from our point of view.
Image credit: NASA/ESA

Astronomers detected Trojan asteroid TK7 in October 2010 in images of the sky taken by NASA’s WISE, before verifying its existence on optical images taken by the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. Additional study and computer modeling indicate Earth’s small dance partner should stay in a safe orbit for the next 10,000 years at least.  

This zoomed-in view of a portion of the all-sky survey from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer shows a collection of quasar candidates. Quasars are supermassive black holes feeding off gas and dust. The larger yellow circles show WISE quasar candidates; the smaller blue-green circles show quasars found in the previous visible-light Sloan Digital Sky Survey. WISE finds three times as many quasar candidates with a comparable brightness. Thanks to WISE's infrared vision, it picks up previously known bright quasars as well as large numbers of hidden, dusty quasars. The circular inset images, obtained with NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, show how the new WISE quasars differ from the quasars identified in visible light. Quasars selected in visible light look like stars, as shown in the lower right inset; the cross is a diffraction pattern caused by the bright point source of light. Quasars found by WISE often have more complex appearances, as seen in the Hubble inset near the center. This is because the quasars found by WISE are often obscured or hidden by dust, which blocks their visible light and allows the fainter host galaxy surrounding the black hole to be seen. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/STScI
This zoomed-in view of a portion of the all-sky survey from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer shows a collection of quasar candidates. Quasars are supermassive black holes feeding off gas and dust. The larger yellow circles show WISE quasar candidates; the smaller blue-green circles show quasars found in the previous visible-light Sloan Digital Sky Survey. WISE finds three times as many quasar candidates with a comparable brightness. Thanks to WISE’s infrared vision, it picks up previously known bright quasars as well as large numbers of hidden, dusty quasars.
The circular inset images, obtained with NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, show how the new WISE quasars differ from the quasars identified in visible light. Quasars selected in visible light look like stars, as shown in the lower right inset; the cross is a diffraction pattern caused by the bright point source of light. Quasars found by WISE often have more complex appearances, as seen in the Hubble inset near the center. This is because the quasars found by WISE are often obscured or hidden by dust, which blocks their visible light and allows the fainter host galaxy surrounding the black hole to be seen.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/STScI

In March 2014 astronomers studying infrared images taken by WISE announced the discovery of around 3,500 new stars lying within 500 light-years of Earth. At the same time, they searched the data looking for evidence of Planet X, or Nemesis, the mythical planet some believe to exist somewhere beyond the orbit of Pluto. Scientists analyzed millions of infrared images taken by WISE out to a distance well beyond the orbit of our former ninth planet. They didn’t detect any objects the size of a planet out to a distance of around 25,000 times the distance between the Earth and Sol. Many times beyond the orbit of Pluto. No Planet X was found. 

NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) has identified about 1,000 extremely obscured objects over the sky, as marked by the magenta symbols. These hot dust-obscured galaxies, or "hot DOGs," are turning out to be among the most luminous, or intrinsically bright objects known, in some cases putting out over 1,000 times more energy than our Milky Way galaxy. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA
NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) has identified about 1,000 extremely obscured objects over the sky, as marked by the magenta symbols. These hot dust-obscured galaxies, or “hot DOGs,” are turning out to be among the most luminous, or intrinsically bright objects known, in some cases putting out over 1,000 times more energy than our Milky Way galaxy.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

The vast majority of the latest candidates for the Galaxy Zoo are objects previously undetected by astronomers due to dust blocking visible light. Fortunately, the infrared eyes of WISE detected glowing dust around the candidates, which allowed scientists to detect them. These latest findings are clues astronomers use to better understand the processes creating galaxies and the monster black holes residing in their centers

This image zooms in on the region around the first "hot DOG" (red object in magenta circle), discovered by NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. Hot DOGs are hot dust-obscured galaxies. Follow-up observations with the W.M. Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, show this source is over 10 billion light-years away. It puts out at least 37 trillion times as much energy as the sun. WISE has identified 1,000 similar candidate objects over the entire sky (magenta dots). These extremely dusty, brilliant objects are much more rare than the millions of active supermassive black holes also found by WISE (yellow circles). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA
This image zooms in on the region around the first “hot DOG” (red object in magenta circle), discovered by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. Hot DOGs are hot dust-obscured galaxies. Follow-up observations with the W.M. Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, show this source is over 10 billion light-years away. It puts out at least 37 trillion times as much energy as the sun.
WISE has identified 1,000 similar candidate objects over the entire sky (magenta dots). These extremely dusty, brilliant objects are much more rare than the millions of active supermassive black holes also found by WISE (yellow circles).
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

“We’ve got the black holes cornered,” said Daniel Stern of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., lead author of the WISE black hole study and project scientist for another NASA black-hole mission, the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR). “WISE is finding them across the full sky, while NuSTAR is giving us an entirely new look at their high-energy X-ray light and learning what makes them tick.” 

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

Organizing the Monster Zoo

The Monster of the Milky Way, the estimated 4 million solar mass black hole astronomers believe resides at the center, periodically feeds upon material falling too deep into its gravity well, and heats up surrounding disks of dust and gas. Astronomers have even witnessed 1 billion solar mass monster black holes change their surrounding environments enough to shut down star formation processes in their host galaxy. Now, astronomers need to go through the millions of candidates and put them in the correct section of the zoo. We might even need to open a few new sections to accommodate unusual candidates found during a closer examination.  

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Looming Cosmic Clouds Crisscross Giant Elliptical Galaxy Centaurus A

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Revealing the youthful glow of blue star clusters and a dusty core hidden from view 

Space news (astrophysics: giant elliptical galaxies; Centaurus A) – 11 million light-years from Earth toward the constellation Centaurus (NGC 5128) –  

The closest galaxy to Earth with an active nucleus containing a supermassive black hole that ejects jets of high-speed, extremely energetic particles into space, the giant elliptical island universe Centaurus A’s (NGC 5128) a nearby laboratory in which astronomers test present theories.  

The stunning Hubble Space Telescope image of Centaurus A (above) reveals a scene resembling cosmic clouds on a stormy day. Dark lanes of gas and dust crisscross its warped disk, revealing the youthful glow of blue star clusters, and red patches indicating shockwaves from a recent merger with a spiral galaxy. Shockwaves that cause hydrogen gas clouds to contract, starting the process of new star formation. 

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The startling composite image of Centaurus A above combines X-ray data from NASA’s Chandra Observatory, optical data from the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope, and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Very Large Array. The core of NGC 5128 is a mess of gas, dust, and stars in visible light, but X-rays and radio waves reveal a stunning jet of high-speed, extremely energetic particles emanating from its active nucleus. 

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Elliptical galaxy Centaurus A is a peculiar galaxy with unusual and chaotic lanes of dust running across its center making it hard for astronomers to study its core. Also called NGC 5128, Centaurus A has red stars and a round shape characteristic of a giant elliptical galaxy, a type normally low in dark dust lanes. Image Credit & Copyright: Roberto Colombari

What could power such an event?

The power source for the relativistic jets observed streaming from the active galactic nucleus of Centaurus A’s a supermassive black hole with the estimated mass of over 10 million suns. Beaming out from the galactic nucleus toward the upper left, the high-speed jet travels nearly 13,000 light-years, while a shorter jet shoots from the core in the opposing direction. Astronomers think the source of the chaos in active galaxy Centaurus A’s the noted collision with a spiral galaxy about 100 million years ago. 

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Thick lanes of dust obscure the center of Elliptical Galaxy Centaurus A from CFHT Credit & Copyright: Jean-Charles Cuillandre (CFHT) & Giovanni Anselmi (Coelum Astronomia), Hawaiian Starlight 

The amazing high-energy, extremely-fast, 30,000 light-year-long particle jet is the most striking feature in the false-color X-ray image taken by the Chandra Observatory. Beaming upward toward the left corner of the image, the relativistic jet seems to blast from the core of Centaurus A. A core containing an active, monster black hole pulling nearby matter into the center of its gravity well. An unknown realm mankind dreams about visiting one day. 

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This image taken by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope shows in unprecedented detail the galaxy Centaurus A’s last big meal: a spiral galaxy seemingly twisted into a parallelogram-shaped structure of dust. Spitzer’s ability to see dust and also see through it allowed the telescope to peer into the center of Centaurus A and capture this galactic remnant as never before. Credit: NASA/Spitzer

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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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A Titanic Supermassive Black Hole Residing in a Galactic Backwater

Makes astronomers think they need to rethink theory on black hole formation 

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Scientists generated this computer simulation showing a supermassive black hole lurking at the center of a massive galaxy. The black sphere seen here at the core of the galaxy is its event horizon, beyond which not even light can escape the gravitational grip of this monster. A gravitational force that distorts spacetime near it and stretches and smears light from background stars as it travels past the black hole. Image credit: NASA/STSci/ESA

Space news (Black hole formation theory) – 200 million light-years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Eridanus –

Astronomers working on current black hole formation theory have detected a supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy in a region of space and time they didn’t expect to find such a monster. A very hungry monster containing the mass of over 17 billion suns, residing in an out-of-the-way galactic backwater town.
Previously, astronomers detected titanic supermassive black holes at the center of huge, very massive galaxies in parts of space and time with a greater density of large galaxies. The very crowded Coma galaxy cluster has over 1,000 galaxies and is home to the biggest monster supermassive black hole recorded with an estimated mass of 21 billion times that of Sol.

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NGC 1600 is a massive, isolated elliptical galaxy with one of the biggest recorded monster residing at its core. A supermassive black hole estimated to contain the matter found within 17 million suns like our own. Credit: NASA, ESA, Digital Sky Survey 2

“The newly discovered supersized black hole resides in the center of a massive elliptical galaxy, NGC 1600, located in a cosmic backwater, a small grouping of 20 or so galaxies,” said lead discoverer Chung-Pei Ma, a University of California-Berkeley astronomer and head of the MASSIVE Survey, a study of the most massive galaxies and supermassive black holes in the local universe. “While finding a gigantic black hole in a massive galaxy in a crowded area of the universe is to be expected – like running across a skyscraper in Manhattan – it seemed less likely they could be found in the universe’s small towns.”
“There are quite a few galaxies the size of NGC 1600 that reside in average-size galaxy groups,” Ma said. “We estimate that these smaller groups are about 50 times more abundant than spectacular galaxy clusters like the Coma cluster. So the question now is, ‘Is this the tip of an iceberg?’ Maybe there are more monster black holes out there that don’t live in a skyscraper in Manhattan, but in a tall building somewhere in the Midwestern plains.”

Ground-based view of NGC 1600
This is an image of lonely, wandering NGC 1600 taken by ground-based telescopes. Credit: NASA/ESA/Digitized Sky Survey 2

Astrophysicists studying NGC 1600 detected a supermassive black hole at least ten times more massive than current theory predicted at its center. Scientists previously thought the more massive the central bulge of a galaxy, proportionally more massive the supermassive black hole at its center should be, but this throws a wrench in previous correlations between the mass of a supermassive black hole and its central bulge of suns.

“It appears that that relation does not work very well with extremely massive black holes; they are a larger fraction of the host galaxy’s mass,” Ma said.

What could cause this smaller galaxy in a cosmic backwater to have such a titanic supermassive black hole at its core? It could be NGC 1600 merged with another galaxy hundreds of millions of years ago when such collisions were more common in this region of spacetime. Computer simulations show the central supermassive black holes of two merging galaxies fall into the center of the recently formed galaxy and begin orbiting each other in a slowly diminishing radius. Stars and other stellar objects that fall into the core steal momentum from the twirling monsters and in the process are often flung from the center of the galaxy. This transfer of momentum causes the supermassive black holes to slowly move closer together and eventually merge to form a super monster. A super monster that continues to grow by devouring gas drawn into the center of the galaxy by collisions and gravity.

In the words of Ma, “To become this massive, the black hole would have had a very voracious phase during which it devoured lots of gas.”

Astronomers continue to watch

Is it possible constant merging of NGC 1600 with galactic neighbors is one reason it lives in a cosmic backwater, with relatively few nearby galactic neighbors? It’s the brightest galaxy in town, more than three times brighter than any member of its galactic group. This difference in brightness has rarely been observed in other galactic groups. Maybe lots of galactic mergers resulted in one of the most titanic supermassive black holes ever recorded, residing in a small, cosmic backwater town.

The super monster lurking at the center of NGC 1600 is currently sleeping, but astronomers are watching for signs of its next meal going down. While they wait, they’re working on updating current theory on the formation of black holes, using the data obtained by studying NGC 1600 and similar galaxies. Current theory that will likely need to be revamped once new data comes in during our journey to the beginning of space and time.

The tide of science may rise and fall, but it always seeks truth in the facts. 

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Supermassive black holes engulf any mass coming to close, and often burp after a meal.

Read about the weird light signal given off by two black holes that are destined to merge.