NASA’s Swift spacecraft is designed to hunt for gamma-ray bursts. But in the time between these almost-daily cosmic explosions, Swift’s Burst Alert Telescope (BAT) scans the sky, performing an ongoing X-ray survey. Some of the first results of that survey were shared at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Long Beach, California. The BAT is revealing differences between nearby active galaxies and those located about halfway across the universe. Understanding these differences will help clarify the relationship between a galaxy and its central black hole. But unlike most telescopes, the BAT observations are not done with mirrors, optics or direct focusing. Instead, images are made by analyzing the shadows cast by 52,000 randomly placed lead tiles on 32,000 hard X-ray detectors. And BAT is becoming a workhorse: The survey is now the largest and most sensitive census of the high-energy X-ray sky.
“There’s a lot we don’t know about the workings of supermassive black holes,” says Richard Mushotzky of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Astronomers think the intense emission from the centers, or nuclei, of active galaxies arises near a central black hole containing more than a million times the sun’s mass. “Some of these feeding black holes are the most luminous objects in the universe. Yet we don’t know why the massive black hole in our own galaxy and similar objects are so dim.”
“The BAT sees about half of the entire sky every day,” Mushotzky said. “Now we have cumulative exposures for most of the sky that exceed 10 weeks.”
Galaxies that are actively forming stars have a distinctly bluish color (“new and blue”), while those not doing so appear quite red (“red and dead”). Nearly a decade ago, surveys with NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory and ESA’s XMM-Newton showed that active galaxies some 7 billion light-years away were mostly massive “red and dead” galaxies in normal environments.
The BAT survey looks much closer to home, within about 600 million light-years. There, the colors of active galaxies fall midway between blue and red. Most are spiral and irregular galaxies of normal mass, and more than 30 percent are colliding. “This is roughly in line with theories that mergers shake up a galaxy and ‘feed the beast’ by allowing fresh gas to fall toward the black hole,” Mushotzky says.
Until the BAT survey, astronomers could never be sure they were seeing most of the active galactic nuclei. An active galaxy’s core is often obscured by thick clouds of dust and gas that block ultraviolet, optical and low-energy (“soft”) X-ray light. Dust near the central black hole may be visible in the infrared, but so are the galaxy’s star-formation regions. And seeing the black hole’s radiation through dust it has heated gives us a view that is one step removed from the central engine. “We’re often looking through a lot of junk,” Mushotzky says.
But “hard” X-rays — those with energies between 14,000 and 195,000 electron volts — can penetrate the galactic junk and allow a clear view. Dental X-rays work in this energy range.
Astronomers think that all big galaxies have a massive central black hole, but less than 10 percent of these are active today. Active galaxies are thought to be responsible for about 20 percent of all energy radiated over the life of the universe, and are thought to have had a strong influence on the way structure evolved in the cosmos.
The Swift spacecraft was launched in 2004.