The central regions of many glittering galaxies, our own Milky Way included, harbor cores of impenetrable darkness—black holes with masses equivalent to millions, or even billions, of suns. What is more, these supermassive black holes and their host galaxies appear to develop together, or “co-evolve.” Theory predicts that as galaxies collide and merge, growing ever more massive, so too do their dark hearts.
Black holes by themselves are impossible to see, but their gravity can pull in surrounding gas to form a swirling band of material called an accretion disk. The spinning particles are accelerated to tremendous speeds and release vast amounts of energy in the form of heat and powerful X-rays and gamma rays. When this process happens to a supermassive black hole, the result is a quasar—an extremely luminous object that outshines all of the stars in its host galaxy and that is visible from across the universe. “Quasars are valuable probes of the evolution of galaxies and their central black holes,” says George Djorgovski, professor of astronomy and director of the Center for Data-Driven Discovery at Caltech.
High-energy jets powered by supermassive black holes can blast away a galaxy’s star-forming fuel, resulting in so-called “red and dead” galaxies: those brimming with ancient red stars yet containing little or no hydrogen gas to create new ones.
Now astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) have discovered that black holes don’t have to be nearly so powerful to shut down star formation. By observing the dust and gas at the center of NGC 1266, a nearby lenticular galaxy with a relatively modest central black hole, the astronomers have detected a “perfect storm” of turbulence that is squelching star formation in a region that would otherwise be an ideal star factory.
This turbulence is stirred up by jets from the galaxy’s central black hole slamming into an incredibly dense envelope of gas. This dense region, which may be the result of a recent merger with another smaller galaxy, blocks nearly 98 percent of material propelled by the jets from escaping the galactic center.
For years, astronomers have been puzzled by a bizarre object in the center of the Milky Way that was believed to be a hydrogen gas cloud headed toward our galaxy’s enormous black hole.
Having studied it during its closest approach to the black hole this summer, UCLA astronomers believe that they have solved the riddle of the object widely known as G2.
A team led by Andrea Ghez, professor of physics and astronomy in the UCLA College, determined that G2 is most likely a pair of binary stars that had been orbiting the black hole in tandem and merged together into an extremely large star, cloaked in gas and dust — its movements choreographed by the black hole’s powerful gravitational field. The research is published today in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters.
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Scientists have used NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR), an orbiting X-ray telescope, to capture an extreme and rare event in the regions immediately surrounding a supermassive black hole. A compact source of X-rays that sits near the black hole, called the corona, has moved closer to the black hole over a period of just days. The researchers publish their results in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
“The corona recently collapsed in towards the black hole, with the result that the black hole’s intense gravity pulled all the light down onto its surrounding disk, where material is spiralling inward,” said Michael Parker of the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge, lead author of the new paper.
As the corona shifted closer to the black hole, the black hole’s gravitational field exerted a stronger tug on the x-rays emitted by the corona. The result was an extreme blurring and stretching of the X-ray light. Such events had been observed previously, but never to this degree and in such detail.
ESA has selected the Athena advanced telescope for high-energy astrophysics as its second ‘Large-class’ science mission.
The observatory will study the hot and energetic Universe and takes the ‘L2’ slot in ESA’s Cosmic Vision 2015–25 plan, with a launch foreseen in 2028.
By combining a large X-ray telescope with state-of-the-art scientific instruments, Athena will address key questions in astrophysics, including: how and why does ordinary matter assemble into the galaxies and galactic clusters that we see today? How do black holes grow and influence their surroundings?
Scientists believe that black holes lurk at the centre of almost all galaxies and that they play a fundamental role in their formation and evolution.
Astronomers studying two classes of black-hole-powered galaxies monitored by NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope have found evidence that they represent different sides of the same cosmic coin. By unraveling how these objects, called blazars, are distributed throughout the universe, the scientists suggest that apparently distinctive properties defining each class more likely reflect a change in the way the galaxies extract energy from their central black holes.
“We can think of one blazar class as a gas-guzzling car and the other as an energy-efficient electric vehicle,” said lead researcher Marco Ajello, an astrophysicist at Clemson University in South Carolina. “Our results suggest that we’re actually seeing hybrids, which tap into the energy of their black holes in different ways as they age.”
Active galaxies possess extraordinarily luminous cores powered by black holes containing millions or even billions of times the mass of the sun. As gas falls toward these supermassive black holes, it settles into an accretion disk and heats up. Near the brink of the black hole, through processes not yet well understood, some of the gas blasts out of the disk in jets moving in opposite directions at nearly the speed of light.
Blazars are the highest-energy type of active galaxy and emit light across the spectrum, from radio to gamma rays. They make up more than half of the discrete gamma-ray sources cataloged by Fermi’s Large Area Telescope, which has detected more than 1,000 to date. Astronomers think blazars appear so intense because they happen to tip our way, bringing one jet nearly into our line of sight. Looking almost directly down the barrel of a particle jet moving near the speed of light, emissions from the jet and the region producing it dominate our view.
A team of Australian and American astronomers have been studying nearby galaxy M83 and have found a new superpowered small black hole, named MQ1, the first object of its kind to be studied in this much detail.
Astronomers have found a few compact objects that are as powerful as MQ1, but have not been able to work out the size of the black hole contained within them until now.
The team observed the MQ1 system with multiple telescopes and discovered that it is a standard-sized small black hole, rather than a slightly bigger version that was theorised to account for all its power.
Curtin University senior research fellow Dr Roberto Soria, who is part of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) and led the team investigating MQ1, said it was important to understand how stars were formed, how they evolved and how they died, within a spiral shaped galaxy like M83.
“MQ1 is classed as a microquasar – a black hole surrounded by a bubble of hot gas, which is heated by two jets just outside the black hole, powerfully shooting out energy in opposite directions, acting like cosmic sandblasters pushing out on the surrounding gas,” Dr Soria said.