Andromeda’s Unstable Black Hole

Article Updated: 24 Dec , 2015
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The Andromeda galaxy, the closest spiral galaxy to our own Milky Way, has a supermassive blackhole at the center of it much like other galaxies. Because of its proximity to us, Andromeda – or M31 – is an excellent place to study just how the supermassive black holes in the centers of galaxies consume material to grow, and interact gravitationally with the surrounding material.

Over the course of the last ten years, NASA’s Chandra X-Ray observatory has monitored closely the supermassive black hole at Andromeda’s heart. This long-term data set gives astronomers a very nuanced picture of just how these monstrous black holes change over time. Zhiyuan Li of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) presented results of this decade-long observation of the black hole at the 216th American Astronomical Society meeting in Miami, Florida this week.

From 1999 to 2006, M31 was relatively quiet and dim. In January of 2006, though, the black hole in the center of Andromeda suddenly brightened by over 100 times, and has remained 10 times as bright since. This suggests that the black hole swallowed something massive, but the details of the outburst in 2006 remain unclear.

The black hole in M31, located in the Andromeda constellation, likely continues to feed off of the stellar winds of a nearby star or the material in a large gas cloud that is falling into the black hole. As material is consumed, it drives the productions of X-rays in a relativistic jet streaming out from the black hole, which are then picked up by Chandra’s X-ray eyes.

The black hole in M31 is 10 to 100,000 times dimmer than expected, given that it has a large reservoir of gas surrounding it.

“The black holes in both Andromeda and the Milky Way are incredibly feeble. These two ‘anti-quasars’ provide special laboratories for us to study some of the dimmest type of accretion even seen onto a supermassive black hole,” Li said.

Accretion of matter into supermassive black holes is important to study because the evolution of galaxies is influenced by this process, Li said. The gravitational interplay of the black hole with the surrounding material in a galaxy, as well as the energy released when such supermassive black holes consume material in their surrounding accretion disks, change the structure of the galaxy as it forms. A better understanding of just how these supermassive black holes act in the later stages of spiral galaxy life may give clues as to what astronomers can expect to see in other galaxies.

M31 is readily seen with the naked eye in the constellation Andromeda, and is breathtaking to see through a telescope or binoculars. You won’t be able to see the black hole at its center, however! For more information on observing Andromeda, see our Guide to Space article on M31.

Source: Eurekalert

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14 Responses

  1. marek says:

    “Over the course of the last ten years, NASA’s Chandra X-Ray observatory has monitored closely the supermassive black hole at Andromeda’s heart. This long-term data set gives astronomers a very nuanced picture of just how these monstrous black holes change over time.”

    Am I the only one who thinks “long-term” is not so much, given the age of the universe? 🙂

  2. Jon Hanford says:

    “”The black holes in both Andromeda and the Milky Way are incredibly feeble.”

    Their output will greatly increase when these two galaxies meet in a few billion years.

    “These two ‘anti-quasars’…..”

    D’oh, did they have to use this descriptor? Too confusing/misleading for the masses.

  3. Lawrence B. Crowell says:

    My little point in the writing is that the black hole does not change much, it is mostly the environment around the BH that changes. Though the physics is probably correct. A star probably became tidally disrupted in a decaying orbit close to the BH and have been ripped apart into an accretion disk.

    LC

  4. Conshana says:

    Jon Hanford Says:
    D’oh, did they have to use this descriptor? Too confusing/misleading for the masses.

    With all due respect, Jon, I am one of “the masses.” I feel it is my responsibility to grow to the knowledge available, and not have it “dumbed down” to my current level. No one grows without stretching the envelope, and fighting to comprehend that which is beyond their current experience. There’s a lot I don’t understand here, but I love Space, and I love Astronomy. Therefore, I will grow to match that which I love.
    Blessings,
    Conshana

  5. Torbjorn Larsson OM says:

    How can anything even happen?

    Because anti-quasars use anti-time?

    Kidding aside, it is a relativity effect. (Due to the warping of the light cones that constitutes the horizon.)

    It is the outside observer that observes the infalling object’s clock as slowing.

    An observer co-moving with the object would not notice any such effect.

    [This is similar but not identical to the twin case (“twin paradox”, another misnomer since the apparent paradox is resolved), with the accelerated twin’s clock seen by the other as slowing down but not notice any such effect himself.]

    Here is the Usenet Physics FAQ on “What happens to you if you fall into a black hole?” It mentions the twin case, and how to get that too out of a black hole.

  6. Jon Hanford says:

    Coshana, not having it “dumbed down” was the point I was trying to make. For those reading this press release, a google search for this term gives results that have nothing to do with astronomy. This is not a term that is used in the professional literature, so a search there is equally useless. What, precisely, is a “anti-quasar”? The opposite of a quasar (whatever that is)? An antimatter quasar? Point is, a simpler, less confusing phrasing could have been used to describe these objects.

  7. Torbjorn Larsson OM says:

    I think the descriptor is useful too. A “non-quasar” could be anything, a “non-quasar SMBH” clunky. I can live with the ambiguity.

  8. Torbjorn Larsson OM says:

    Oops, should have updated. Jon, your point of no precedence is well taken. But the apposite would be to go for it as a new term. (Not likely, given the reactions. :-D)

  9. Aodhhan says:

    I’ve never heard the term “anti-quasar” before, and I’ve looked through some modern references and cannot find it listed there.
    I don’t really think adding unnecessary syntax or secondary words really stretches the ‘envelope’ of astronomical knowledge. We’ll just have to see if the word catches on with the community.

    Personally, I would rather keep it simple. To me it is more impressive to take the complicated and make it understandable to everyone. Why use $50 dollar words when one worth a quarter will work?

  10. neoguru says:

    Since time is slowed to essentially a standstill near the event horizon of a black hole, how can anything fall in or even move in that vicinity? How can anything even happen?

  11. DrFlimmer says:

    Thank you very much, Torbjorn Larsson.

    THAT link is really appreciated!! I stumbled upon this “paradox” quite often and didn’t know the answer. “Becoming exponentially dimmer” seems to solve the problem. Many thanks, again!

    🙂

  12. Torbjorn Larsson OM says:

    DrFlimmer, you are welcome! I haven’t studied GR, only the SR everyone needs, so the old Physics FAQ was a great help there for me too the first time someone pointed me to it. Let us help spread the good links around.

  13. Hon. Salacious B. Crumb says:

    Aodhhan said;

    “Personally, I would rather keep it simple.”

    You do that, but your own understanding is what I question. Past behaviour shows us your obnoxious attitude is what stinks.

  14. DrFlimmer says:

    @ Torbjorn Larsson

    As a matter of fact, I attended a course named General Relativity. However, it mostly dealt with the mathematical foundations and not with the physics and “applications” behind it, which I for one would have found much more interesting.

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