Halt, Black Hole! Gemini Captures Explosions That Deprive Black Holes of Mass

by Anne Minard on February 23, 2011

Artist’s rendering of the environment around the supermassive black hole at the center of Mrk 231. The broad outflow seen in the Gemini data is shown as the fan-shaped wedge at the top of the accretion disk around the black hole, in side view. A similar outflow is probably present under the disk as well. The total amount of material entrained in the broad flow is at least 400 times the mass of the sun per year. Credit: Gemini Observatory/AURA, artwork by Lynette Cook

Astronomers have long suspected that something must stymie actively growing black holes, because most galaxies in the local universe don’t have them. Now, the Gemini Observatory has captured a galactic check-and-balance — a large-scale quasar outflow in the galaxy Markarian 231 that appears to be depriving a supermassive black hole its diet of gas and dust.

The work is a collaboration between David Rupke of Rhodes College in Tennessee and the University of Maryland’s Sylvain Veilleux. The results are to be published in the March 10 issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Markarian 231 (12h56’14.23″ +56d52’25.24″) is located about 600 million light-years away in the direction of the constellation of Ursa Major. Although its mass is uncertain, some estimates indicate that Mrk 231 has a mass in stars about three times that of the Milky Way, and its central black hole is estimated to have a mass of at least 10 million solar masses or also about three times that of the supermassive black hole in the Milky Way.

Theoretical modeling specifically points to quasar outflows as the counterbalance to black hole growth. In this negative feedback loop, while the black hole is actively acquiring mass as a quasar, the outflows carry away energy and material, suppressing further growth. Small-scale outflows had been observed before, but none sufficiently powerful to account for this predicted and fundamental aspect of galaxy evolution. The Gemini observations provide the first clear evidence for outflows powerful enough to support the process necessary to starve the galactic black hole and quench star formation by limiting the availability of new material.

This extraction from the data cube shows the large-scale, fast outflow of neutral sodium at the center of the quasar Markarian 231. We are looking down onto the material that moves toward us relative to the galaxy, so the measured velocities are negative. The large black circle marks the location of the black hole, and red lines show the location of a radio jet. In addition to the quasar outflow, the jet pushes the material at the top right, resulting in even greater speeds. Part of the starburst is located at the position of the box at the lower left, and it is likely responsible for the gas motion in this region.

Study author Veilleux says Mrk 231 is an ideal laboratory for studying outflows caused by feedback from supermassive black holes: “This object is arguably the closest and best example that we know of a big galaxy in the final stages of a violent merger and in the process of shedding its cocoon and revealing a very energetic central quasar. This is really a last gasp of this galaxy; the black hole is belching its next meals into oblivion!” As extreme as Mrk 231’s eating habits appear, Veilleux adds that they are probably not unique: “When we look deep into space and back in time, quasars like this one are seen in large numbers, and all of them may have gone through shedding events like the one we are witnessing in Mrk 231.”

Although Mrk 231 is extremely well studied, and known for its collimated jets, the Gemini observations exposed a broad outflow extending in all directions for at least 8,000 light-years around the galaxy’s core. The resulting data reveal gas (characterized by sodium, which absorbs yellow light) streaming away from the galaxy center at speeds of over 1,000 kilometers per second. At this speed, the gas could go from New York to Los Angeles in about 4 seconds. This outflow is removing gas from the nucleus at a prodigious rate — more than 2.5 times the star formation rate. The speeds observed eliminate stars as the possible “engine” fueling the outflow. This leaves the black hole itself as the most likely culprit, and it can easily account for the tremendous energy required.

The energy involved is sufficient to sweep away matter from the galaxy. However, “when we say the galaxy is being blown apart, we are only referring to the gas and dust in the galaxy,” notes Rupke. “The galaxy is mostly stars at this stage in its life, and the outflow has no effect on them. The crucial thing is that the fireworks of new star formation and black hole feeding are coming to an end, most likely as a result of this outflow.”

Source: Gemini press release. The paper appears here. See also some galactic merger animations, courtesy of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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