Not All Black Holes are Ravenous Gluttons

Some Supermassive Black Holes (SMBHs) consume vast quantities of gas and dust, triggering brilliant light shows that can outshine an entire galaxy. But others are much more sedate, emitting faint but steady light from their home in the heart of their galaxy.

Observations from the now-retired Spitzer Space Telescope help show why that is.

It appears that every large galaxy has an SMBH at its heart. This is true of our Milky Way galaxy and of our closest galactic neighbour, Andromeda (M31.) Like all black holes, SMBHs draw material towards them that gathers in an accretion disk. As the material in the disk rotates and heats up, it emits light before it falls into the hole.

It turns out that both of those SMBHs are among the quiet eaters in the black hole population. Others are much more ravenous, consuming large amounts of matter in clumps and shining brightly for periods of time. Astrophysicists wonder what’s behind the difference.

Recent research published in The Astrophysical Journal has determined what’s happening in these different black holes. The title is “The Accretion Mode in Sub-Eddington Supermassive Black Holes: Getting into the Central Parsecs of Andromeda.” The lead author is Christian Alig, a post-doc student at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics.

Andromeda (M31) is a close neighbour in cosmic terms. It’s about 780 kiloparsecs away, or about 2.5 million light years. It’s a sub-Eddington SMBH, meaning that it hasn’t reached the theoretical maximum accretion rate. Its proximity makes it an excellent target for observing and studying large-scale galactic structure, especially the nucleus. The nucleus is where most of the action is, dominated by an SMBH and containing a dense population of stars and a network of gas and dust. This research focuses on the gas and dust.

“This paper investigates the formation, stability, and role of the network of dust/gas filaments surrounding the M31 nucleus,” the authors write in their research. “The proximity of M31, 780 kpc, allows us to visualize in great detail the morphology, size, and kinematics of the filaments in ionized gas and dust.”

The researchers worked with images from the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes. Using different filters, the telescope images revealed the shape and other characteristics of the network of gas and dust. “The appearance of the central region of M31 varies dramatically in the different mid-infrared bands, from a smooth, featureless bulge dominated by the old stellar population at 3.6 ?m to the distinct spiral dust filament structure that dominates the 8 ?m image,” the authors explain.

These images from the research show how different telescopes and filters can work together to reveal structure. The top row is Spitzer images of M31 at different wavelengths. Structure emerges successively with each image. The bottom right image is the 8 ?m image minus the 4.5 ?m image, which basically removes starlight. The middle right bottom image is a Hubble image showing H-alpha and ionized nitrogen. The bottom left image is a Hubble UV image, and the middle left is the same image with starlight removed. Image Credit: Alig et al. 2024.

The researchers found a circumnuclear dust ring around the galactic nucleus that measures between 0.5 and 1 kpc from the center (1,630 to 3,260 light-years.) Filaments of dust emanate from this ring, forming a spiral inside it. “Inside the ring, the dust filaments follow circularized orbits around the center, ending in a nuclear spiral in the central hundred parsecs,” the authors explain.

These images from the research successive zoom-ins at different wavelengths. In the middle image, a dotted white line outlines the circumnuclear ring in M31. The third image “… is a pure dust map of the central kiloparsec of M31,” the authors write. In the third image, an arrow shows the filament used as a reference in simulations. Image Credit: Alig et al. 2024.

After identifying structures in the telescope images, the researchers turned to simulations. They used hydrodynamical simulations to see what initial conditions made filaments and streamers of flowing gas move nearer to the SMBH. “By predicting the orbit and velocity of the filaments, we aim to infer the role of the nuclear spiral as a feeder of the M31 BH,” they explain.

The hydrodynamical simulations cover a wide area of the nucleus, from 900 parsecs to 6 parsecs from the SMBH in M31. The starting point for the simulations is the brightest and longest dust filament the team found in the images. In the image above, it’s marked with a white arrow. “The filament curves progressively toward the center as it approaches,” the researchers write. “It is also seen in the ionized gas <H-alpha and NII> though more diffuse, in the central few hundred parsecs.”

The simulations assume that the dust filament is made of dust infalling from the circumnuclear ring, though the researchers didn’t investigate how the dust made its way into the ring in the first place. The simulation began by injecting gas into the ring. The team let the simulation fun for millions of years to see how the gas behaves. “In the end, we needed about 200 Myr of simulation time to arrive at a configuration that best reproduces the observations,” the authors explain.

This figure shows snapshots from the simulation at different intervals from 17.5 million years to 156 million years. (a) and (b) don’t deviate much from an N-body simulation, but eventually, a ring takes shape. In (b,) the freshly injected material collides with the uppermost arc. That heats up the gas, creating a hot surrounding atmosphere shown in blue/pink. The stream crosses itself repeatedly after that and experiences friction from the atmosphere. (d) through (f) shows how the gas eventually circularizes into a ring shape. Image Credit: Alig et al. 2024.

“Friction at the inner edge of an elongated ring structure that forms in (e) causes thin filaments to spiral inward, eventually forming a small disk in the inner 100 pc, visible in (f),” the authors explain.

All of the team’s simulations arrived at similar results, even though they began with different parameters like initial angles, velocities, distances, and angle of injection. “Interestingly, due to the relatively good radial symmetry of the M31 potential in the inner 1 kpc, all simulations lead to very similar results,” the researchers explain.

The observations and images of M31’s inner region are in line with what astronomers find in other quiet galaxies. Those surveys “… reveal a common pattern in the dust morphology, formed by narrow, long dust filaments ending in a spiral in the central few hundred parsecs,” the authors write. The majority of low-luminosity galaxies in a 2003 study also have nuclear spirals that span several hundred parsecs.

Interestingly, high-accreting galaxies different than M31 also show a network of dust lanes and filaments, but their morphology is less organized. It often consists of one long filament that runs right across the nucleus. This could be the critical difference between the sedate SMBH in M31 and galaxies with much brighter black holes.

M31 and its ilk are fed a slow, steady diet of gas, which means their brightness is steady. But other galaxies are fed matter in larger clumps, which makes their brightness reach brilliant peaks, outshining all the stars in their galaxy. That’s the difference between gluttonous SMBHs and well-behaved ones.

“The hydrodynamical simulations show that the role of these filaments <in M31> is to transport matter to the center; however, the net amount that they transport to the center is small—a consequence of their extensive interaction with themselves, their surrounding atmosphere, and the ISM over a timescale of several million years,” the authors conclude. “We postulate that when dust/gas filaments in the central hundred parsecs of galaxies get to settle in a nuclear spiral configuration, a low accretion mode of the central BH will result.”

So galaxies with spiral patterns of gas in their nuclei have low accretion modes and lower, steadier luminosity. Galaxies without these patterns accrete more matter irregularly, and their luminosity surges.

One of the interesting things about this research is that it didn’t rely on new observations from new, powerful telescopes like the JWST. Instead, it relied on images from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, which ended its mission in January 2020. It illustrates how modern telescopes and observatories generate massive amounts of data that scientists can utilize in different ways long after the telescope’s mission has ended.

“This is a great example of scientists reexamining archival data to reveal more about galaxy dynamics by comparing it to the latest computer simulations,” said study co-author Almudena Prieto, an astrophysicist at the Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands and the University Observatory Munich. “We have 20-year-old data telling us things we didn’t recognize in it when we first collected it.”

Evan Gough

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