Taking a Galaxy’s Temperature

by Nicholos Wethington on December 9, 2010

The image above shows the variation in temperature over the span of NGC 5813. The outline encircles a region 367,000 light years in diameter, and the temperatures indicated are in millions of degrees. Red indicates warmer temperatures, blue cooler. This image uses information from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory and optical imaging from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS). Image Credit: Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/S.Randall et al., Optical: SDSS

The role that supermassive black holes play in the formation of galaxies is a “hot” topic in astronomy. Using the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, an international team of astronomers have been able to create a temperature map of one galaxy, NGC 5813, which is located in the Virgo III Group of galaxies. The new map shows in unprecedented detail the history of various periods of activity of the Active Galactic Nucleus (AGN), which is associated with a supermassive black hole that resides at its center. They found that regular outbursts of the AGN maintained the temperature of the gas in the region of the galaxy, continually reheating the gas that would otherwise have cooled down.

Paper co-author Dr. Scott Randall of the Chandra Mission Planning Team at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics said, “Although there are other systems that show AGN outburst shocks, this is still the only system where unambiguous shocks from multiple outbursts are seen. This allows us to directly measure the heating from shocks, and directly observe how often these shocks take place. Thus, at present NGC 5813 is *uniquely* well suited to the study of AGN heating.”

By studying images taken by the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, and combining these observations with those taken by the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) and the Southern Astrophysical Research Telescope (SOAR), they were able to make out large cavities produced by periods of activity in the supermassive black hole. The researchers were able to determine that there were three pairs of large cavities, which corresponded to active outbursts of the galactic nucleus 3 million, 20 million and 90 million years ago (from our perspective here on Earth).

What makes the galaxy NGC 5813 especially suited to this study is its relative isolation from other galaxies that could influence the formation of these cavities – it is an older galaxy that is relatively undisturbed, allowing for these cavities in the gas to persist over such a long time period.

Current models of galaxy formation must take into account just how much of an influence the output of the supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy has on the formation of stars within the galaxy, and the evolution of the shape and size of the galaxy as a whole. This process of “AGN feedback” has a dramatic influence on how the galaxy takes shape. The research by Dr. Randall, et. al shows an intimate portrait of this process.

Dr. Randall explained, “This is an important result for stellar formation and galaxy evolution. The AGN heats the gas, preventing it from cooling and forming large amounts of stars. There have been several galaxy evolution models proposed that require this kind of “AGN feedback” near the centers of galaxies to explain the observed differences in galaxies. Here we show explicitly that this kind of feedback can and does take place, at least in this system.”

A labeled image of the various shock waves and cavities formed by the activity of the AGN. Image Credit: Credit: NASA/CXC/SAO/S.Randall et al.

As you can see in the image directly above, various outbursts of the AGN create shock waves in the gas near the center of the galaxy. As these shock waves expanded and the galaxy evolved over millions of years, the heat generated by the shocks spread outwards and into the gas surrounding NGC 5813. The gas between all of the galaxies in a cluster is called the intracluster medium (ICM). The heat – which is produced by the friction of the gases at the edge of each of the shock waves – radiates outward into the surrounding gas, increasing its temperature.

The output of the jets streaming from the supermassive black hole in the center vary over a span of roughly 10 million years, and the amount of energy that each outburst puts out is rather variable – the difference between the last two largest outbursts, for example, is almost an order of magnitude.

This process is cyclical, though the details of the mechanisms involved are still a topic that isn’t completely understood.

Dr. Randall explained this process as follows:

“…the gas cools radiatively, and flows in towards the AGN. The cool gas is rapidly accreted by the black hole, dirving [sic] an energetic outburst. The outburst heats the gas (via shocks), stopping the inflow and starving the AGN. The gas is then able to cool once more, and the cycle repeats, with, in this case, a period of about 10 million years. However, the fine details of how the jet and the ICM interact are not currently well uderstood [sic], and it is not clear how well this simple model describes reality. Our goal with the upcoming deep Chandra observation is to better understand the details of this process, most likely through comparisons with detailed numerical simulations.”

Further observations of NGC 5813 in the fall of 2011 using Chandra are in the works, Dr. Randall said. The results of their analysis will be published in the Astrophysical Journal. A preprint version of the paper, “Shocks and Cavities from Multiple Outbursts in the Galaxy Group NGC 5813: A Window to AGN Feedback,” is available on Arxiv.

Sources: Chandra press release, Arxiv paper, email interview with Dr. Scott Randall

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