The Dusty Heart Of An Active Galaxy


Credit: NASA HST, News Release STScI-2000-37

Credit: NASA HST, News Release STScI-2000-37

An international research team led by Konrad Tristram from the Max-Planck-Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, obtained the most detailed view so far of the warm dust in the environment of a supermassive black hole in an active galaxy. The observations of the Circinus galaxy show, for the first time, that the dust directly illuminated by the central engine of the active galaxy is located in two distinct components: an inner warped disk and a surrounding larger distribution of dust. Most likely, the larger component is responsible for most of the obscuration of the inner regions close to the supermassive black hole. Such a configuration is significantly more complex than the simple dusty doughnut, which has been favoured for the last few decades.

In active galactic nuclei, enormous amounts of energy are released due to the feeding of the supermassive black hole in the centre of the galaxy. Such black holes have masses of a million or billion times the mass of the sun. The matter spiralling in onto the black hole becomes so hot and luminous that it outshines its entire galaxy with billions of stars. The huge amounts of energy released also affect the surrounding galaxy. Active galactic nuclei are therefore thought to play an important role in the formation and evolution of galaxies and hence in the formation of the universe as presently seen.

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