Why do some of the supermassive black holes in active galactic nuclei create back-to-back jets that can vaporize entire solar systems, while others have no jets at all?
Dan Evans, a postdoctoral researcher at MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research (MKI) thinks he knows why; it’s because the jet-producing supermassive black holes are spinning backwards, relative to their accretion disks.
For two years, Evans has been comparing several dozen galaxies whose black holes host powerful jets (these galaxies are known as radio-loud active galactic nuclei, or AGN, and are often DRAGNs – double radio source associated with galactic nucleus) to those galaxies with supermassive black holes that do not eject jets. All black holes – those with and without jets – feature accretion disks, the clumps of dust and gas rotating just outside the event horizon. By examining the light reflected in the accretion disk of an AGN black hole, he concluded that jets may form right outside black holes that have a retrograde spin – or which spin in the opposite direction from their accretion disk. Although Evans and a colleague recently hypothesized that the gravitational effects of black hole spin may have something to do with why some have jets, Evans now has observational results to support the theory in a paper published in the Feb. 10 issue of the Astrophysical Journal.
Although Evans has suspected for nearly five years that retrograde black holes with jets are missing the innermost portion of their accretion disk, it wasn’t until last year that computational advances meant that he could analyze data collected between late 2007 and early 2008 by the Suzaku observatory, a Japanese satellite launched in 2005 with collaboration from NASA, to provide an example to support the theory. With these data, Evans and colleagues from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Yale University, Keele University and the University of Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom analyzed the spectra of the active galactic nucleus with a pair of jets located about 800 million light years away in an AGN named 3C 33.
“It’s the first convincing galaxy of this type seen at this angle where the result is pretty robust,” said Patrick Ogle, an assistant research scientist at the California Institute of Technology, who studies AGN. Ogle believes Evans’s theory regarding retrograde spin is among the best explanations he has heard for why some AGN contain a supermassive black hole with a jet and others don’t.
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Astrophysicists can see the signatures of x-ray emission from the inner regions of the accretion disk, which is located close to the edge of a black hole, as a result of a super hot atmospheric ring called a corona that lies above the disk and emits light (electromagnetic radiation) that an observatory like Suzaku can detect. In addition to this direct light, a fraction of light passes down from the corona onto the black hole’s accretion disk and is reflected from the disk’s surface, resulting in a spectral signature pattern called the Compton reflection hump, also detected by Suzaku.
But Evans’ team never found a Compton reflection hump in the x-ray emission given off by 3C 33, a finding the researchers believe provides crucial evidence that the accretion disk for a black hole with a jet is truncated, meaning it doesn’t extend as close to the center of the black hole with a jet as it does for a black hole that does not have a jet. The absence of this innermost portion of the disk means that nothing can reflect the light from the corona, which explains why observers only see a direct spectrum of x-ray light.
The researchers believe the absence may result from retrograde spin, which pushes out the orbit of the innermost portion of accretion material as a result of general relativity, or the gravitational pull between masses. This absence creates a gap between the disk and the center of the black hole that leads to the piling of magnetic fields that provide the force to fuel a jet.
While Ogle believes that the retrograde spin theory is a good explanation for Evans’ observations, he said it is far from being confirmed, and that it will take more examples with consistent results to convince the astrophysical community.
The field of research will expand considerably in August 2011 with the planned launch of NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) satellite, which is 10 to 50 times more sensitive to spectra and the Compton reflection hump than current technology. NuSTAR will help researchers conduct a “giant census” of supermassive black holes that “will absolutely revolutionize the way we look at X-ray spectra of AGN,” Evans explained. He plans to spend another two years comparing black holes with and without jets, hoping to learn more about the properties of AGN. His goal over the next decade is to determine how the spin of a supermassive black hole evolves over time.