Clouds Circling Supermassive Black Holes


Artist's concept. Credit: NASA / JPL / Caltech

Artist’s concept. Credit: NASA / JPL / Caltech

Astronomers see huge clouds of gas orbiting supermassive black holes at the centres of galaxies. Once thought to be a relatively uniform, fog-like ring, the accreting matter instead forms clumps dense enough to intermittently dim the intense radiation blazing forth as these enormous objects condense and consume matter.

The international team reports their sightings in a paper to be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, available online now. Videos depicting the swirling clouds are posted to YouTube.

Evidence for the clouds comes from records collected over 16 years by NASA’s Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer, a satellite in low-earth orbit equipped with instruments that measured variations in X-ray sources. Those sources include active galactic nuclei, brilliantly luminous objects powered by supermassive black holes as they gather and condense huge quantities of dust and gas.

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