Dust In The Wind… Black Hole Style

by Tammy Plotner on June 20, 2013

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This artist’s impression shows the surroundings of the supermassive black hole at the heart of the active galaxy NGC 3783 in the southern constellation of Centaurus (The Centaur). New observations using the Very Large Telescope Interferometer at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile have revealed not only the torus of hot dust around the black hole but also a wind of cool material in the polar regions. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

This artist’s impression shows the surroundings of the supermassive black hole at the heart of the active galaxy NGC 3783 in the southern constellation of Centaurus (The Centaur). New observations using the Very Large Telescope Interferometer at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile have revealed not only the torus of hot dust around the black hole but also a wind of cool material in the polar regions. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Over the years, researchers have taken myriad observations of black holes and their environs, but now ESO’s Very Large Telescope Interferometer is giving us the most detailed look of the dust around a black hole at the center of an active galaxy ever obtained. Originally expected to be contained within the ring-shaped torus around the black hole, the observation held a surprise as astronomers discovered that a significant amount of the dust was located both above and below the torus. What can this mean? According to the latest findings and contrary to popular theory, it is possible the dust is being evacuated from the region as a cool wind.

For the last two decades, astronomers have discovered that nearly all galaxies harbor a black hole at their hearts. In many cases, these monsters increase in size by accreting matter from the immediate vicinity. This, in turn, is responsible for the creation of active galactic nuclei (AGN), one of the most energetic objects in the Universe. Surrounding the super-luminous giants are rings of cosmic dust which originate from space – drawn in like water swirling down a dark drain. According to theory, the intense infrared radiation exerted by AGN must have originated from these dusty eddies.

Thanks to the powerful eye of the Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile, astronomers have now seen something new in a nearby active galaxy cataloged as NGC 3783. While they observed the expected hot dust clocking in at some 700 to 1000 degrees Celsius, what they also observed confounded them… Huge amounts of cooler dust both above and below the main torus.

As Sebastian Hönig (University of California Santa Barbara, USA and Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel, Germany), lead author of the paper presenting the new results, explains, “This is the first time we’ve been able to combine detailed mid-infrared observations of the cool, room-temperature dust around an AGN with similarly detailed observations of the very hot dust. This also represents the largest set of infrared interferometry for an AGN published yet.”

Is this a black hole teething ring? From their observations, the researchers suspect the newly-discovered dust is flowing outward from the central black hole. This means the wind most likely plays a critical part in the tangled relationship of both the black hole and its surroundings. Apparently the black hole pulls immediate material into it, but the incredible amount of radiation this produces also seems to be pushing it away. Scientists are far from clear as to how these two processes work together, but the discovery of this dusty wind could lead to a better understanding of their evolution.

To get the resolution needed to study the core area of NGC 3783, astronomers needed to use the combined power of the Unit Telescopes of ESO’s Very Large Telescope. Through this union, an interferometer is created – one capable of “seeing” with the equivalent of a 130-meter telescope.

Another team member, Gerd Weigelt (Max-Planck-Institut für Radioastronomie, Bonn, Germany), explains, “By combining the world-class sensitivity of the large mirrors of the VLT with interferometry we are able to collect enough light to observe faint objects. This lets us study a region as small as the distance from our Sun to its closest neighbouring star, in a galaxy tens of millions of light-years away. No other optical or infrared system in the world is currently capable of this.”

What do these new observations mean to the world of astronomy? It might very well change the pattern of how we currently understand AGN. With proof that dust is being expelled by intense radiation, new models must be created – models which include this recent information of how dust can be distributed.

Hönig concludes, “I am now really looking forward to MATISSE, which will allow us to combine all four VLT Unit Telescopes at once and observe simultaneously in the near- and mid-infrared — giving us much more detailed data.” MATISSE, a second generation instrument for the VLTI, is currently under construction.

Original Story Source: ESO News Release.

About 

Tammy is a professional astronomy author, President Emeritus of Warren Rupp Observatory and retired Astronomical League Executive Secretary. She’s received a vast number of astronomy achievement and observing awards, including the Great Lakes Astronomy Achievement Award, RG Wright Service Award and the first woman astronomer to achieve Comet Hunter's Gold Status.

Aqua4U June 20, 2013 at 3:52 PM

“…capable of “seeing” with the equivalent of a 130-meter telescope.” Wow and that would be followed closely with a double WOW! Yah gotta love that tech!

Evidence seems to be gathering that not only does the gravity of a BH draw in matter created by the ‘Big Bang’ in an accretion disk, but also there seems to be a mechanism within which there is an energy to matter exchange created by that singularity wherein NEW matter is created! Matter drawn it into our space-time through a worm hole? The fusion of matter and anti-matter via multiverse interactions. Imagine the next universe over being composed of antimatter…. and gravity the hole through which an exchange occurs.

Torbjörn Larsson June 20, 2013 at 5:47 PM

Do I have to elaborate on the obvious? These results do not ‘gather evidence’ of ‘energy to matter exchange’ with the BH.

And why the laziness to google? The consensus on the accretion disk heating mechanism is dissipation as it crowds towards the BH:

“As matter follows the tendex line into a black hole, the intense gravitational gradient gives rise to intense frictional heating; the accretion disc of a black hole is hot enough to emit X-rays just outside of the event horizon.

Aqua4U June 20, 2013 at 9:31 PM

Recent evidence of antimatter and subsequent gamma ray production in our galaxy’s (and in other galaxies) halos appears to be produced at the polar axis’ above and below the massive black hole’s singularity and may be providing evidence for a worm hole thru which multiverse and/or dark matter interactions occur. Just saying it doesn’t make it so, but the evidence appears to be mounting….

Torbjörn Larsson June 20, 2013 at 5:38 PM

At least superficially these objects reminds me of protoplanetary disks, at the stage around when the star ignites and ejects matter from the poles (see the video).

Reid Barnes June 20, 2013 at 6:36 PM

This article says:: “For the last two decades, astronomers have discovered that nearly all galaxies harbor a black hole at their hearts.” Is this established science or still hypothesis? How can it be either, really, if the theory on which it is claimed is founded on self-contradicting non-Euclidean geometry? See the Facebook Note, The Problem With Non-Euclidean Geometry… https://www.facebook.com/notes/reid-barnes/the-problem-with-non-euclidean-geometry-or-the-lite-triangle-axiom-part-two/541137095938869

straw walker June 20, 2013 at 8:55 PM

To observe something and then to be able to define it’s operation, is almost impossible. It would be like a man from the 1800′s defining the operation of an automobile from a photo in 2013. Man can only make educated guesses. Black holes exist in the centre of a galaxy and can make up to 40% of its entire mass. That can be said with some certainty. What their purpose is purpose is a guess. It would seem to me that they are the clocks of the Universe, and their purpose is to preserve the Universe forever, as in conserving time. This eliminates the need of the Big Bang Theory, which is closer to Big Bad Theory.

Prism2Spectrum June 23, 2013 at 10:55 AM

Hot inflows(?), cool outflows? Conjures mechanical thoughts of an inverted engine’s running operation (normally, cool inflow, hot outflow). A processing cycle at work? What interactive play of dynamics turn dark torus of dust, and spin luminous disk of gas. Gravity-motion, energy generation. But why? Governing laws, regulating operations. But why, this gyroscope-like working assembly? Cool polar outflow, from mammoth compressed mass, encircled with piraling matter of radiant motion, emanating power and heat. But why? To Galaxy of glittering birth, from wonder at its center, what is the intimate tie?

Unable to find Galaxy image. But found this illuminating animation:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3wUjILPSuII

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