A supermassive black hole has been found in an unusual spot: an isolated region of space where only small, dim galaxies reside. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Supermassive Black Holes In Distant Galaxies Are Mysteriously Aligned

Article Updated: 5 May , 2016

In 1974, astronomers detected a massive source of radio wave emissions coming from the center of our galaxy. Within a few decades time, it was concluded that the radio wave source corresponded to a particularly large, spinning black hole. Known as Sagittarius A, this particular black hole is so large that only the designation “supermassive” would do. Since its discovery, astronomers have come to conclude that supermassive black holes (SMBHs) lie at the center of almost all of the known massive galaxies.

But thanks to a recent radio imaging by a team of researchers from the University of Cape Town and University of the Western Cape, in South Africa, it has been further determined that in a region of the distant universe, the SMBHs are all spinning out radio jets in the same direction. This finding, which shows an alignment of the jets of galaxies over a large volume of space, is the first of its kind, and could tell us much about the early Universe.

This research, which appeared recently in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, was made possible thanks to a three-year deep radio imaging survey conducted by the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) in India. After examining the radio waves coming from a region of space called ELAIS-N1, the South African research team found that the jets being produced by these galaxies were all in alignment.

Artist's impression of a supermassive black hole. Credit: NRAO

Artist’s impression of a supermassive black hole. Credit: NRAO

This finding could only be explained by venturing that the SMBHs creating them were all spinning in the same direction, which in turn reveals something rather interesting about how these black holes came to be. In essence, the only likely reason why multiple SMBHs could be spinning in the same direction over a large volume of space is if they were the result of primordial mass fluctuations in the early universe.

As Prof. Andrew Russ Taylor – the joint UWC/UCT SKA Chair, Director of the recently-launched Inter-University Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy, and principal author of the Monthly Notices study – explained: “Since these black holes don’t know about each other, or have any way of exchanging information or influencing each other directly over such vast scales, this spin alignment must have occurred during the formation of the galaxies in the early universe.”

This was rather surprising, and something the research team wasn’t prepared for. Initially, the goal of the project was to explore the faintest radio sources in the universe using the latest generation of radio telescopes; which, it was hoped, would provide a preview of what the next-generation of telescopes like South Africa’s MeerKAT telescope and the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will provide once they go online.

While previous studies have shown that there are deviations in the orientations of certain galaxies, this was the first time that astronomers were able to use the jets produced by the SMBA holes to reveal their alignments. After noting the symmetry that was apparent between them, the research team considered several options as to why an alignment in galaxies (even on scales larger than galaxy clusters) might be.

NASA’s CIBER experiment seeks clues to the formation of the first stars and galaxies. CIBER will blast off on June 4 from the NASA Wallops Flight Facility, Virginia. It will study the total sky brightness, to probe the component from first stars and galaxies using spectral signatures, and searches for the distinctive spatial pattern seen in this image, produced by large-scale structures from dark matter. This shows a numerical simulation of the density of matter when the universe was one billion years old. Galaxies formation follows the gravitational wells produced by dark matter, where hydrogen gas coalesces, and the first stars ignite. Credit: Volker Springel/Virgo Consortium.

By studying the large-scale spin distribution of SMBHs could tell us much about the matter fluctuations that gave rise to the large-scale structure of the Universe. Credit: Volker Springel/Virgo Consortium.

However, it is important to note that a large-scale spin distribution of this kind has never been predicted by theories. Such an unknown phenomenon certainly presents a challenge when it comes to prevailing theories about the origins of the Universe, which will have to be revised somewhat to account for this.

While earlier studies have detected deviations from uniformity in the orientations of galaxies, this was the first time that radio jets were used to measure their alignment. This was made possible thanks to the sensitivity of the radio images used, which also benefitted from the fact that measurements of the intensity of radio emissions are not effected by things like scattering, extinction and Faraday Rotation (which may have effected other studies).

Furthermore, the presence of alignments of this nature could shed light on the orientation and evolution of these galaxies, particularly in relation to large-scale structures. They could also help astronomer to learn more about the motions in the primordial matter fluctuations that gave rise to the current structure of the Universe. As Taylor and the other authors of the paper also note, it will be interesting to compare this with predictions of angular momentum structure from universe simulations.

In recent years, several simulations have been produced to model the large-sale structure of the Universe and how it evolved. These include, but are not limited to, the FastSound project – which has been surveying galaxies in the Universe using the Subaru Telescope’s Fiber Multi-Object Spectrograph (FMOS) – and the DESI Project, which will rely on the Mayall Telescope at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona to chart the history of the Universe going back 11 billion years and create an extremely precise 3D map.

Distribution of galaxies and quasars in a slice of BOSS out to a redshift of 3, or 11 billion years in the past. Credit: SDSS-III

Graphic representation of data obtained by the Baryon Oscillation Spectrographic Survey (BOSS) showing redshift of galaxies over an 11 billion years period. Credit: SDSS-III

And then there’s the Australian Square-Kilometer Array Pathfinder (ASKAP), a radio telescope currently being commissioned by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) in Western Australia. When completed, the ASKAP array will combine fast survey speed and high sensitivity to study the early Universe.

In the coming years, these projects, combined with this new information about the alignments of supermassive black holes, are likely to shed some serious light on how the Universe came to be, from creation to the present day. As Taylor puts it, “We’re beginning to understand how the large-scale structure of the universe came about, starting from the Big Bang and growing as a result of disturbances in the early universe, to what we have today, and that helps us explore what the universe of tomorrow will be like.”

Further Reading: Royal Astronomical Society

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10 Responses

  1. Smokey says:

    In the words of the immortal James Hyneman: “Now that’s what I call a result.”

  2. mewo says:

    I wouldn’t rule out some kind of observational bias.

  3. wjwbudro says:

    Our Universe is one of many vortices spun up by the larger Hurricane we call the multi-verse.
    Just a wild thought.

  4. Indianer says:

    This is interesting. But I don’t agree with their conclusion that this must be because of some early phenomenon in the creation of the universe, having to do with mass fluctuations. We are not able to detect or make visual observations on all the known forces in the universe, so we can’t rule out the possibility that there is an alternate reason causing the alignment. We do know now that gravitational waves exist, and that may be a way for us to better map unseen parts of the universe i the future. In addition gravitational waves might also play a factor in the alignment over time. We do know that space/time is effected by mass. We believe mass to be sonething that is accumulated when particles and matter flow through a field of energy collecting a type of “Higgs boson” during mass accretion. If there is a universal field that contributes to this formation of all matter, it may also have an effect on alignments of matter and even supermassive black holes at a distance, due to the interaction between mass, matter and space/time. There could be reasons as to why the black holes “fell into” an alignment over time rather than being dictated from an earlier stage? If the Higgs field is responsible for mass accretion, then it could be said that the more massive an object is, the more likely it might be to align itself with this feild in some way. Where a small body of mass might be less susceptible to this alignment over time, acting on its own physics and less dependent on the interaction between its matter and the Higgs field.

  5. tbprod says:

    Hmm. I wonder, how the region, where these aligned super massive black holes lie, looks like in the respective region of CMBR?

    • Indianer says:

      That was my thinking also. They sound like they are in a region that is far enough out that any forces from cmbr and other energies might not have enough effect to alter their alignment in some way. Their behavior reminds me of the way water molecules can align themselves with the poles on earth. Where they would be like water molecules and the universe would be like the earth in that analogy. My first thought was that this alignment might suggest that the Higgs field not only exists, but that it has poles or some type of polarity to some degree that effects the behavior of matter within the field. Obviously where objects are much more distant, and are subject only to the field’s influences, the objects might be more likely to align to the field’s forces upon them. Attributing this behavior to mass fluctuations that occurred before the big bang seems less likely to me, since the energy and forces from that event would have made any future alignments less likely in my opinion.

      • Smokey says:

        @Indianer: “Attributing this behavior to mass fluctuations that occurred before the big bang seems less likely to me….”

        Not before the big bang, but shortly afterwards during the era when all of these objects/areas were still close enough together that the forces we already have something of a handle on (gravity & electromagnetism, e.g.) would have still been strong enough to exert a significant influence over them all. It’s sort of the reverse of the efforts which search for evidence of “outside universes” by checking the CMB for features too large to explain via mutual interaction; in this particular case, the result of the observations is definitely too spread out to be a result of any recent mutual interactions, and therefore seems (according to the authors) to perhaps be left over from the time when things WERE close enough together to influence one another.

        Those who doubt or disagree with this suggestion are certainly welcome to do so, but it’s important to remember a point made in the article itself: this observational result was completely unexpected, and no one prior to this point had predicted it. As such, the study authors’ proposed explanation is nothing more than a “Hey, man, we don’t know, maybe it’s this *shrug*?” In other words, more research is absolutely needed, and this is their FIRST try at an explanation, not the Final Cosmological Word on the matter by any stretch. We may need (and many people seem to hope fervently for) a total rewrite of Science to explain it; most likely (given previous examples of unexpected observational findings) it’s just an unexpected consequence of stuff we already know/understand.

        Fortunately, it appears that our follow-on instruments — the ones they were prepping us for with this very set of observations — will be well suited to studying this exact phenomenon in greater detail, and over a wider part of the universe.

      • Indianer says:

        If that theory is correct, then most of the matter in the universe and most black holes should also be somewhat aligned with each other, which is not the case. Why shouldn’t the theory apply to other supermassive black holes, and what is different in particular about these and their arrangement? I have often wondered about this myself, and I can’t say that I am surprised that there are supermassive black holes that exhibit alignments to each other. If they are on the outer reaches of our universe that might be an attributable cause to the alignments as opposed to other objects that are much closer to each other. If the theory that they formed this alignment shortly after the big bang applies, because of the closeness of their proximity at the time, then other objects that are much closer should also exhibit this alignments as well. I would suggest that it is due to the fact that they are so far apart and so far from interactions with other masses, that lends itself to their ability to align with each other. In other words, because that lack interaction with other objects, they are then able to respond to something that is inherent to their physics. I think it is much more likely that their alignment suggests that they are being acted upon by some external or internal force that is creating the alignment. If the alignment was due to something that happened shortly after the big bang, I would think that it would be much more common to see black holes and their surrounding galaxies also show some signs of alignment from time to time, especially ones that are still close to the epicenter of the occurrence. And I would suggest that this is not so because the matter that is still closer has not had the opportunity to fall into the alignment yet, whereas matter that is farther would have had that opportunity over time. Anything is possible, but there should still be some form of patterns that can be applied to their behavior as a way of tracking that behavior over time.

      • Indianer says:

        In addition I would also ask whether or not these supermassive black holes were created just after the time of the big bang, or if they collapsed into existence over a longer time as a function of space/time? It seems much more likely that they were very large stars initially that became supermassive black holes over time. So, if that is the case then stars that are still in existence close to the occurrence of the big bang should still show some alignments as well (or black holes that are at the center of galaxies, since they are more likely to be black holes at this point as well). Given what their theory suggests, you would think it should be an observable pattern. Since this is not the case, it would seem that their interaction just after the big bang would be less likely to create such alignments. Their remote location and distance from other matter seems to me to be a possible contributing factor to their behavior. Which again would be attributable to some form of inherent behavior of the interaction of mass and space/time itself. Perhaps some inherent behavior within the Higgs Field?

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