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Active Supermassive Black Holes Revealed In Merging Galaxies


Artist's rendition. Credit: NAOJ

Artist’s rendition. Credit: NAOJ

A team of astronomers has conducted infrared observations of luminous, gas-rich, merging galaxies with the Subaru Telescope to study active, mass-accreting supermassive black holes (SMBHs). They found that at least one SMBH almost always becomes active and luminous by accreting a large amount of material (Figure 1). However, only a small fraction of the observed merging galaxies show multiple, active SMBHs. These results suggest that local physical conditions near SMBHs rather than general properties of galaxies primarily determine the activation of SMBHs.

In this Universe, dark matter has a much higher mass than luminous matter, and it dominates the formation of galaxies and their large-scale structures. The widely accepted, cold-dark-matter based galaxy formation scenario posits that collisions and mergers of small gas-rich galaxies result in the formation of massive galaxies seen in the current Universe. Recent observations show that SMBHs with more than one-million solar masses ubiquitously exist in the center of galaxies. The merger of gas-rich galaxies with SMBHs in their centers not only causes active star formation but also stimulates mass accretion onto the existing SMBHs. When material accretes onto a supermassive black hole (SMBH), the accretion disk surrounding the black hole becomes very hot from the release of gravitational energy, and it becomes very luminous.

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