The Universe’s Missing Matter. Found!

In the 1960s, astronomers began to notice that the Universe appeared to be missing some mass. Between ongoing observations of the cosmos and the the Theory of General Relativity, they determined that a great deal of the mass in the Universe had to be invisible. But even after the inclusion of this “dark matter”, astronomers could still only account for about two-thirds of all the visible (aka. baryonic) matter.

This gave rise to what astrophysicists dubbed the “missing baryon problem”. But at long last, scientists have found what may very well be the last missing normal matter in the Universe. According to a recent study by a team of international scientists, this missing matter consists of filaments of highly-ionized oxygen gas that lies in the space between galaxies.

The study, titled “Observations of the missing baryons in the warm–hot intergalactic medium“, recently appeared in the scientific journal Nature. The study was led by Fabrizio Nicastro, a researcher from the Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica (INAF) in Rome, and included members from the SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research, the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), the Instituto de Astronomia Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, the Instituto Nacional de Astrofísica, Óptica y Electrónica, the Instituto de Astrofísica de La Plata (IALP-UNLP) and multiple universities.

Artist’s impression of ULAS J1120+0641, a very distant quasar powered by a black hole with a mass two billion times that of the Sun. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

For the sake of their study, the team consulted data from a series of instruments to examine the space near a quasar called 1ES 1553. Quasars are extremely massive galaxies with Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN) that emit tremendous amounts of energy. This energy is the result of gas and dust being accreted onto supermassive black holes (SMBHs) at the center of their galaxies, which results in the black holes emitting radiation and jets of superheated particles.

In the past, researchers believed that of the normal matter in the Universe, roughly 10% was bound up in galaxies while 60% existed in diffuse clouds of gas that fill the vast spaces between galaxies. However, this still left 30% of normal matter unaccounted for. This study, which was the culmination of a 20-year search, sought to determine if the last baryons could also be found in intergalactic space.

This theory was suggested by Charles Danforth, a research associate at CU Boulder and a co-author on this study, in a 2012 paper that appeared in The Astrophysical Journal – titled “The Baryon Census in a Multiphase Intergalactic Medium: 30% of the Baryons May Still be Missing“. In it, Danforth suggested that the missing baryons were likely to be found in the warm-hot intergalactic medium (WHIM), a web-like pattern in space that exists between galaxies.

As Michael Shull – a professor of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder and one of the co-authors on the study – indicated, this wild terrain seemed like the perfect place to look.“This is where nature has become very perverse,” he said. “This intergalactic medium contains filaments of gas at temperatures from a few thousand degrees to a few million degrees.”

Close-up of star near a supermassive black hole (artist’s impression). Credit: ESA/Hubble, ESO, M. Kornmesser

To test this theory, the team used data from the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS) on the Hubble Space Telescope to examine the WHIM near the quasar 1ES 1553. They then used the European Space Agency’s (ESA) X-ray Multi-Mirror Mission (XMM-Newton) to look closer for signs of the baryons, which appeared in the form of highly-ionized jets of oxygen gas heated to temperatures of about 1 million °C (1.8 million °F).

First, the researchers used the COS on the Hubble Space Telescope to get an idea of where they might find the missing baryons in the WHIM. Next, they homed in on those baryons using the XMM-Newton satellite. At the densities they recorded, the team concluded that when extrapolated to the entire Universe, this super-ionized oxygen gas could account for the last 30% of ordinary matter.

As Prof. Shull indicated, these results not only solve the mystery of the missing baryons but could also shed light on how the Universe began. “This is one of the key pillars of testing the Big Bang theory: figuring out the baryon census of hydrogen and helium and everything else in the periodic table,” he said.

Looking ahead, Shull indicated that the researchers hope to confirm their findings by studying more bright quasars. Shull and Danforth will also explore how the oxygen gas got to these regions of intergalactic space, though they suspect that it was blown there over the course of billions of years from galaxies and quasars. In the meantime, however, how the “missing matter” became part of the WHIM remains an open question. As Danforth asked:

“How does it get from the stars and the galaxies all the way out here into intergalactic space?. There’s some sort of ecology going on between the two regions, and the details of that are poorly understood.”

Assuming these results are correct, scientists can now move forward with models of cosmology where all the necessary “normal matter” is accounted for, which will put us a step closer to understanding how the Universe formed and evolved. Now if we could just find that elusive dark matter and dark energy, we’d have a complete picture of the Universe! Ah well, one mystery at a time…

Further Reading: UCB, Nature

Researchers Tackle Question of How the Universe Became Filled With Light

In accordance with the Big Bang model of cosmology, shortly after the Universe came into being there was a period known as the “Dark Ages”. This occurred between 380,000 and 150 million years after the Big Bang, where most of the photons in the Universe were interacting with electrons and protons. As a result, the radiation of this period is undetectable by our current instruments – hence the name.

Astrophysicists and cosmologists have therefore been pondering how the Universe could go from being in this dark, cloudy state to one where it was filled with light. According to a new study by a team of researchers from the University of Iowa and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, it may be that black holes violently ejected matter from the early Universe, thus allowing light to escape.

Their study, titled “Resolving the X-ray emission from the Lyman continuum emitting galaxy Tol 1247-232“, recently appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Led by Phillip Kaaret, a professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Iowa – and supported by an award from the Chandra X-ray Observatory – the research team arrived at this conclusion by observing a nearby galaxy from which ultraviolet light is escaping.

Milestones in the history of the Universe, from the Big Bang to the present day. Credit: NAOJ/NOAO

This galaxy, known as Tol 1247-232, is a small (and possibly elliptical) galaxy located 652 million light-years away, in the direction of the southern Hydra constellation. This galaxy is one of just nine in the local Universe (and one of only three galaxies close to the Milky Way) that has been shown to emit Lyman continuum photons – a type of radiation in the ultraviolet band.

Back in May of 2016, the team spotted a single X-ray source coming from a star-forming region in this galaxy, using the Chandra X-ray observatory. Based on their observations, they determined that it was not caused by the formation of a new star. For one, new stars do not experience sudden changes in brightness, as this x-ray source did. In addition, the radiation emitted by new stars does not come in the form of a point-like source.

Instead, they determined that what they were seeing had to be the result of a very small object, which left only one likely explanation: a black hole. As Philip Kaaret, a professor in the UI Department of Physics and Astronomy and the lead author on the study, explained:

“The observations show the presence of very bright X-ray sources that are likely accreting black holes. It’s possible the black hole is creating winds that help the ionizing radiation from the stars escape. Thus, black holes may have helped make the universe transparent.”

Where is the Nearest Black Hole
Artist concept of matter swirling around a black hole. Credit: NASA/Dana Berry/SkyWorks Digital

However, this also raised the question of how a black hole could be emitting matter. This is something that astrophysicists have puzzled over for quite some time. Whereas all black holes have tendency to consume all that is in their path, a small number of supermassive black holes (SMBHs) have been found to have high-speed jets of charged particles streaming from their cores.

These SMBHs are what power Active Galactic Nuclei, which are compact, bright regions that has been observed at the centers of particularly massive galaxies. At present, no one is certain how these SMBHs manage to fire off jets of hot matter. But it has been theorized that they could be caused by the accelerated rotational energy of the black holes themselves.

In keeping with this, the team considered the possibility that accreting X-ray sources could explain the escape of matter from a black hole. In other words, as a black hole’s intense gravity pulls matter inward, the black hole responds by spinning faster. As the hole’s gravitational pull increases, the speed creates energy, which inevitably causes charged particles to be pushed out. As Kaaret explained:

“As matter falls into a black hole, it starts to spin and the rapid rotation pushes some fraction of the matter out. They’re producing these strong winds that could be opening an escape route for ultraviolet light. That could be what happened with the early galaxies.”

Depiction of the tidal disruption event in F01004-2237. The release of gravitational energy as the debris of the star is accreted by the black hole leads to a flare in the optical light of the galaxy. Credit and copyright: Mark Garlick

Taking this a step further, the team hypothesized that this could be what was responsible for light escaping the “Dark Ages”. Much like the jets of hot material being emitted by SMBHs today, similarly massive black holes in the early Universe could have sped up due to the accretion of matter, spewing out light from the cloudiness and allowing for the Universe to become a clear, bright place.

In the future, the UI team plans to study Tol 1247-232 in more detail and locate other nearby galaxies that are also emitting ultraviolet light. This will corroborate their theory that black holes could be responsible for the observed point source of high-energy X-rays. Combined with studies of the earliest periods of the Universe, it could also validate the theory that the “Dark Ages” ended thanks to the presence of black holes.

Further Reading: Iowa Now, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

Gravitational Lensing Provides Rare Glimpse Into Interiors of Black Holes

The observable Universe is an extremely big place, measuring an estimated 91 billion light-years in diameter. As a result, astronomers are forced to rely on powerful instruments to see faraway objects. But even these are sometimes limited, and must be paired with a technique known as gravitational lensing. This involves relying on a large distribution of matter (a galaxy or star) to magnify the light coming from a distant object.

Using this technique, an international team led by researchers from the California Institute of Technology’s (Caltech) Owens Valley Radio Observatory (OVRO) were able to observe jets of hot gas spewing from a supermassive black hole in a distant galaxy (known as PKS 1413 + 135). The discovery provided the best view to date of the types of hot gas that are often detected coming from the centers of supermassive black holes (SMBH).

The research findings were described in two studies that were published in the August 15th issue of The Astrophysical Journal. Both were led by Harish Vedantham, a Caltech Millikan Postdoctoral Scholar, and were part of an international project led by Anthony Readhead – the Robinson Professor of Astronomy, Emeritus, and director of the OVRO.

The Owens Valley Radio Observatory (OVRO) – located near Bishop, California – is one of the largest university-operated radio observatories in the world. Credit:

This OVRO project has been active since 2008, conducting twice-weekly observations of some 1,800 active SMBHs and their respective galaxies using its 40-meter telescope. These observations have been conducted in support of NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, which has be conducting similar studies of these galaxies and their SMBHs during the same period.

As the team indicated in their two studies, these observations have provided new insight into the clumps of matter that are periodically ejected from supermassive black holes, as well as opening up new possibilities for gravitational lensing research. As Dr. Vedantham indicated in a recent Caltech press statement:

“We have known about the existence of these clumps of material streaming along black hole jets, and that they move close to the speed of light, but not much is known about their internal structure or how they are launched. With lensing systems like this one, we can see the clumps closer to the central engine of the black hole and in much more detail than before.”

While all large galaxies are believed to have an SMBH at the center of their galaxy, not all have jets of hot gas accompanying them. The presence of such jets are associated with what is known as an Active Galactic Nucleus (AGN), a compact region at the center of a galaxy that is especially bright in many wavelengths – including radio, microwave, infrared, optical, ultra-violet, X-ray and gamma ray radiation.

Illustration showing the likely configuration of a gravitational lensing system discovered by OVRO. Credit: Anthony Readhead/Caltech/MOJAVE

These jets are the result of material that is being pulled towards an SMBH, some of which ends up being ejected in the form of hot gas. Material in these streams travels at close to the speed of light, and the streams are active for periods ranging from 1 to 10 million years. Whereas most of the time, the jets are relatively consistent, every few years, they spit out additional clumps of hot matter.

Back in 2010, the OVRO researchers noticed that PKS 1413 + 135’s radio emissions had brightened, faded and then brightened again over the course of a year. In 2015, they noticed the same behavior and conducted a detailed analysis. After ruling out other possible explanations, they concluded that the overall brightening was likely caused by two high-speed clumps of material being ejected from the black hole.

These clumps traveled along the jet and became magnified when they passed behind the gravitational lens they were using for their observations. This discovery was quite fortuitous, and was the result of many years of astronomical study. As Timothy Pearson, a senior research scientist at Caltech and a co-author on the paper, explained:

“It has taken observations of a huge number of galaxies to find this one object with the symmetrical dips in brightness that point to the presence of a gravitational lens. We are now looking hard at all our other data to try to find similar objects that can give a magnified view of galactic nuclei.”

Artist’s representation of an active galactic nucleus (AGN) at the center of a galaxy. Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

What was also exciting about the international team’s observations was the nature of the “lens” they used. In the past, scientists have relied on massive lenses (i.e. entire galaxies) or micro lenses that consisted of single stars. However, the team led by Dr. Vedantham and Dr. Readhead relied on an what they describe as a “milli-lens” of about 10,000 solar masses.

This could be the first study in history that relied on an intermediate-sized lens, which they believe is most likely a star cluster. One of the advantages of a milli-sized lens is that it is not large enough to block out the entire source of light, making it easier to spot smaller objects. With this new gravitational lensing system, it is estimated that astronomers will be able to observe clumps at scales about 100 times smaller than before. As Readhead explained:

“The clumps we’re seeing are very close to the central black hole and are tiny – only a few light-days across. We think these tiny components moving at close to the speed of light are being magnified by a gravitational lens in the foreground spiral galaxy. This provides exquisite resolution of a millionth of a second of arc, which is equivalent to viewing a grain of salt on the moon from Earth.”

What’s more, the researchers indicate that the lens itself is of scientific interest, for the simple reason that not much is known about objects in this mass range. This potential star cluster could therefore act as a sort of laboratory, giving researchers a chance to study gravitational milli-lensing while also providing a clear view of the nuclear jets streaming from active galactic nuclei.

Image of the 40-meter telescope of the Owens Valley Radio Observatory (OVRO), located near Bishop, California. Credit: Anthony Readhead/Caltech

Looking ahead, the team hopes to confirm the results of their studies using another technique known as Very-Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI). This will involve radio telescopes from around the world taking detailed images of PKS 1413 + 135 and the SMBH at its center. Given what they have observed so far, it is likely that this SMBH will spit out another clump of matter in a few years time (by 2020).

Vedantham, Readhead and their colleagues plan to be ready for this event. Spotting this next clump would not only validate their recent studies, it would also validate the milli-lens technique they used to conduct their observations. As Readhead indicated, “We couldn’t do studies like these without a university observatory like the Owens Valley Radio Observatory, where we have the time to dedicate a large telescope exclusively to a single program.”

The studies were made possible thanks to funding provided by NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Smithsonian Institution, the Academia Sinica, the Academy of Finland, and the Chilean Centro de Excelencia en Astrofísica y Tecnologías Afines (CATA).

Further Reading: Caltech, The Astrophysical Journal, The Astrophysical Journal (2)


Astronomers Find a Rogue Supermassive Black Hole, Kicked out by a Galactic Collision

When galaxies collide, all manner of chaos can ensue. Though the process takes millions of years, the merger of two galaxies can result in Supermassive Black Holes (SMBHs, which reside at their centers) merging and becoming even larger. It can also result in stars being kicked out of their galaxies, sending them and even their systems of planets into space as “rogue stars“.

But according to a new study by an international team of astronomers, it appears that in some cases, SMBHs could  also be ejected from their galaxies after a merger occurs. Using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and other telescopes, the team detected what could be a “renegade supermassive black hole” that is traveling away from its galaxy.

According to the team’s study – which appeared in the Astrophysical Journal under the title A Potential Recoiling Supermassive Black Hole, CXO J101527.2+625911 – the renegade black hole was detected at a distance of about 3.9 billion light years from Earth. It appears to have come from within an elliptical galaxy, and contains the equivalent of 160 million times the mass of our Sun.

Hubble data showing the two bright points near the middle of the galaxy. Credit: NASA/CXC/NRAO/D.-C.Kim/STScI

The team found this black hole while searching through thousands of galaxies for evidence of black holes that showed signs of being in motion. This consisted of sifting through data obtained by the Chandra X-ray telescope for bright X-ray sources – a common feature of rapidly-growing SMBHs – that were observed as part of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS).

They then looked at Hubble data of all these X-ray bright galaxies to see if it would reveal two bright peaks at the center of any. These bright peaks would be a telltale indication that a pair of supermassive black holes were present, or that a recoiling black hole was moving away from the center of the galaxy. Last, the astronomers examined the SDSS spectral data, which shows how the amount of optical light varies with wavelength.

From all of this, the researchers invariably found what they considered to be a good candidate for a renegade black hole. With the help data from the SDSS and the Keck telescope in Hawaii, they determined that this candidate was located near, but visibly offset from, the center of its galaxy. They also noted that it had a velocity that was different from the galaxy – properties which suggested that it was moving on its own.

The image below, which was generated from Hubble data, shows the two bright points near the center of the galaxy. Whereas the one on the left was located within the center, the one on the right (the renegade SMBH) was located about 3,000 light years away from the center. Between the X-ray and optical data, all indications pointed towards it being a black hole that was kicked from its galaxy.

The bright X-ray source detected with Chandra (left), and data obtained from the SDSS and the Keck telescope in Hawaii. Credit: NASA/CXC/NRAO/D.-C.Kim/STScI

In terms of what could have caused this, the team ventured that the back hole might have “recoiled” when two smaller SMBHs collided and merged. This collision would have generated gravitational waves that could have then pushed the black hole out of the galaxy’s center. They further ventured that the black hole may have formed and been set in motion by the collision of two smaller black holes.

Another possible explanation is that two SMBHs are located in the center of this galaxy, but one of them is not producing detectable radiation – which would mean that it is growing too slowly. However, the researchers favor the explanation that what they observed was a renegade black hole, as it seems to be more consistent with the evidence. For example, their study showed signs that the host galaxy was experiencing some disturbance in its outer regions.

This is a possible indication that the merger between the two galaxies occurred in the relatively recent past. Since SMBH mergers are thought to occur when their host galaxies merge, this reservation favors the renegade black hole theory. In addition, the data showed that in this galaxy, stars were forming at a high rate. This agrees with computer simulations that predict that merging galaxies experience an enhanced rate of star formation.

But of course, additional researches is needed before any conclusions can be reached. In the meantime, the findings are likely to be of particular interest to astronomers. Not only does this study involve a truly rare phenomenon – a SMBH that is in motion, rather than resting at the center of a galaxy – but the unique properties involved could help us to learn more about these rare and enigmatic features.

Detection of an unusually bright X-Ray flare from Sagittarius A*, a supermassive black hole in the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Credit: NASA/CXC/Stanford/I. Zhuravleva et al.

For one, the study of SMBHs could reveal more about the rate and direction of spin of these enigmatic objects before they merge. From this, astronomers would be able to better predict when and where SMBHs are about to merge. Studying the speed of recoiling black holes could also reveal additional information about gravitational waves, which could unlock additional secrets about the nature of space time.

And above all, witnessing a renegade black hole is an opportunity to see some pretty amazing forces at work. Assuming the observations are correct, there will no doubt be follow-up surveys designed to see where the SMBH is traveling and what effect it is having on the surrounding cosmic environment.

Ever since the 1970s, scientists have been of the opinion that most galaxies have SMBHs at their center. In the years and decades that followed, research confirmed the presence of black holes not only at the center of our galaxy – Sagittarius A* – but at the center of all almost all known massive galaxies. Ranging in mass from the hundreds of thousands to billions of Solar masses, these objects exert a powerful influence on their respective galaxies.

Be sure to enjoy this video, courtesy of the Chandra X-Ray Observatory:

Further Reading:

What is a Supermassive Black Hole?

In 1971, English astronomers Donald Lynden-Bell and Martin Rees hypothesized that a supermassive black hole (SMBH) resides at the center of our Milky Way Galaxy. This was based on their work with radio galaxies, which showed that the massive amounts of energy radiated by these objects was due to gas and matter being accreted onto a black hole at their center.

By 1974, the first evidence for this SMBH was found when astronomers detected a massive radio source coming from the center of our galaxy. This region, which they named Sagittarius A*, is over 10 million times as massive as our own Sun. Since its discovery, astronomers have found evidence that there are supermassive black holes at the centers of most spiral and elliptical galaxies in the observable Universe.


Supermassive black holes (SMBH) are distinct from lower-mass black holes in a number of ways. For starters, since SMBH have a much higher mass than smaller black holes, they also have a lower average density. This is due to the fact that with all spherical objects, volume is directly proportional to the cube of the radius, while the minimum density of a black hole is inversely proportional to the square of the mass.

In addition, the tidal forces in the vicinity of the event horizon are significantly weaker for massive black holes. As with density, the tidal force on a body at the event horizon is inversely proportional to the square of the mass. As such, an object would not experience significant tidal force until it was very deep into the black hole.


How SMBHs are formed remains the subject of much scholarly debate. Astrophysicists largely believe that they are the result of black hole mergers and the accretion of matter. But where the “seeds” (i.e. progenitors) of these black holes came from is where disagreement occurs. Currently, the most obvious hypothesis is that they are the remnants of several massive stars that exploded, which were formed by the accretion of matter in the galactic center.

Another theory is that before the first stars formed in our galaxy, a large gas cloud collapsed into a “qausi-star” that became unstable to radial perturbations. It then turned into a black hole of about 20 Solar Masses without the need for a supernova explosion. Over time, it rapidly accreted mass in order to become an intermediate, and then supermassive, black hole.

In yet another model, a dense stellar cluster experienced core-collapse as the as a result of velocity dispersion in its core, which happened at relativistic speeds due to negative heat capacity. Last, there is the theory that primordial black holes may have been produced directly by external pressure immediately after the Big Bang. These and other theories remain theoretical for the time being.

Sagittarius A*:

Multiple lines of evidence point towards the existence of a SMBH at the center of our galaxy. While no direct observations have been made of Sagittarius A*, its presence has been inferred from the influence it has on surrounding objects. The most notable of these is S2, a star that flows an elliptical orbit around the Sagittarius A* radio source.

S2 has an orbital period of 15.2 years and reaches a minimal distance of 18 billion km (11.18 billion mi, 120 AU) from the center of the central object. Only a supermassive object could account for this, since no other cause can be discerned. And from the orbital parameters of S2, astronomers have been able to produce estimates on the size and mass of the object.

For instance, S2s motions have led astronomers to calculated that the object at the center of its orbit must have no less than 4.1 million Solar Masses (8.2 × 10³³ metric tons; 9.04 × 10³³ US tons). Furthermore, the radius of this object would have to be less than 120 AU, otherwise S2 would collide with it.

However, the best evidence to date was provided in 2008 by the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics and UCLAs Galactic Center Group. Using data obtained over a 16 year period by the ESO’s Very Large Telescope and Keck Telescope, they were able to not only accurately estimate the distance to the center of our galaxy (27,000 light years from Earth), but also track the orbits of the stars there with immense precision.

As Reinhard Genzel, the team leader from the Max-Planck-Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics said:

Undoubtedly the most spectacular aspect of our long term study is that it has delivered what is now considered to be the best empirical evidence that supermassive black holes do really exist. The stellar orbits in the Galactic Centre show that the central mass concentration of four million solar masses must be a black hole, beyond any reasonable doubt.”

Another indication of Sagittarius A*s presence came on January 5th, 2015, when NASA reported a record-breaking X-ray flare coming from the center of our galaxy. Based on readings from the Chandra X-ray Observatory, they reported emissions that were 400 times brighter than usual. These were thought to be the result of an asteroid falling into the black hole, or by the entanglement of magnetic field lines within the gas flowing into it.

Other Galaxies:

Astronomers have also found evidence of SMBHs at the center of other galaxies within the Local Group and beyond. These include the nearby Andromeda Galaxy (M31) and elliptical galaxy M32, and the distant spiral galaxy NGC 4395. This is based on the fact that stars and gas clouds near the center of these galaxies show an observable increase in velocity.

Another indication is Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN), where massive bursts of radio, microwave, infrared, optical, ultra-violet (UV), X-ray and gamma ray wavebands are periodically detected coming from the regions of cold matter (gas and dust) at the center of larger galaxies. While the radiation is not coming from the black holes themselves, the influence such a massive object would have on surrounding matter is believed to be the cause.

In short, gas and dust form accretion disks at the center of galaxies that orbit supermassive black holes, gradually feeding them matter. The incredible force of gravity in this region compresses the disk’s material until it reaches millions of degrees kelvin, generating bright radiation and electromagnetic energy. A corona of hot material forms above the accretion disc as well, and can scatter photons up to X-ray energies.

The interaction between the SMBH rotating magnetic field and the accretion disk also creates powerful magnetic jets that fire material above and below the black hole at relativistic speeds (i.e. at a significant fraction of the speed of light). These jets can extend for hundreds of thousands of light-years, and are a second potential source of observed radiation.

When the Andromeda Galaxy merges with our own in a few billion years, the supermassive black hole that is at its center will merge with our own, producing a much more massive and powerful one. This interaction is likely to kick several stars out of our combined galaxy (producing rogue stars), and is also likely to cause our galactic nucleus (which is currently inactive) to become active one again.

The study of black holes is still in its infancy. And what we have learned over the past few decades alone has been both exciting and awe-inspiring. Whether they are lower-mass or supermassive, black holes are an integral part of our Universe and play an active role in its evolution.

Who knows what we will find as we peer deeper into the Universe? Perhaps some day we the technology, and sheer audacity, will exist so that we might attempt to peak beneath the veil of an event horizon. Can you imagine that happening?

We have written many interesting articles about black holes here at Universe Today. Here’s Beyond Any Reasonable Doubt: A Supermassive Black Hole Lives in Centre of Our Galaxy, X-Ray Flare Echo Reveals Supermassive Black Hole Torus, How Do You Weigh a Supermassive Black Hole? Take its Temperature, and What Happens When Supermassive Black Holes Collide?

Astronomy Cast also some relevant episodes on the subject. Here’s Episode 18: Black Holes Big and Small, and Episode 98: Quasars.

More to explore: Astronomy Cast’s episodes Quasars, and Black Holes Big and Small.


What are Active Galactic Nuclei?

In the 1970s, astronomers became aware of a compact radio source at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy – which they named Sagittarius A. After many decades of observation and mounting evidence, it was theorized that the source of these radio emissions was in fact a supermassive black hole (SMBH). Since that time, astronomers have come to theorize that SMBHs at the heart of every large galaxy in the Universe.

Most of the time, these black holes are quiet and invisible, thus being impossible to observe directly. But during the times when material is falling into their massive maws, they blaze with radiation, putting out more light than the rest of the galaxy combined. These bright centers are what is known as Active Galactic Nuclei, and are the strongest proof for the existence of SMBHs.


It should be noted that the enormous bursts in luminosity observed from Active Galactic Nuclei (AGNs) are not coming from the supermassive black holes themselves. For some time, scientists have understood that nothing, not even light, can escape the Event Horizon of a black hole.

Instead, the massive burst of radiations – which includes emissions in the radio, microwave, infrared, optical, ultra-violet (UV), X-ray and gamma ray wavebands – are coming from cold matter (gas and dust) that surround the black holes. These form accretion disks that orbit the supermassive black holes, and gradually feeding them matter.

The incredible force of gravity in this region compresses the disk’s material until it reaches millions of degrees kelvin. This generates bright radiation, producing electromagnetic energy that peaks in the optical-UV waveband. A corona of hot material forms above the accretion disc as well, and can scatter photons up to X-ray energies.

A large fraction of the AGN’s radiation may be obscured by interstellar gas and dust close to the accretion disc, but this will likely be re-radiated at the infrared waveband. As such, most (if not all) of the electromagnetic spectrum is produced through the interaction of cold matter with SMBHs.

The interaction between the supermassive black hole’s rotating magnetic field and the accretion disk also creates powerful magnetic jets that fire material above and below the black hole at relativistic speeds (i.e. a significant fraction of the speed of light). These jets can extend for hundreds of thousands of light-years, and are a second potential source of observed radiation.

Types of AGN:

Typically, scientists divide AGN into two categories, which are referred to as “radio-quiet” and “radio-loud” nuclei. The radio-loud category corresponds to AGNs that have radio emissions produced by both the accretion disk and the jets. Radio-quiet AGNs are simpler, in that any jet or jet-related emission are negligible.

Carl Seyfert discovered the first class of AGN in 1943,  which is why they now bear his name. “Seyfert galaxies” are a type of radio-quiet AGN that are known for their emission lines, and are subdivided into two categories based on them. Type 1 Seyfert galaxies have both narrow and broadened optical emissions lines, which imply the existence of clouds of high density gas, as well as gas velocities of between 1000 – 5000 km/s near the nucleus.

Type 2 Seyferts, in contrast, have narrow emissions lines only. These narrow lines are caused by low density gas clouds that are at greater distances from the nucleus, and gas velocities of about 500 to 1000 km/s. As well as Seyferts, other sub classes of radio-quiet galaxies include radio-quiet quasars and LINERs.

Low Ionisation Nuclear Emission-line Region galaxies (LINERs) are very similar to Seyfert 2 galaxies, except for their low ionization lines (as the name suggests), which are quite strong. They are the lowest-luminosity AGN in existence, and it is often wondered if they are in fact powered by accretion on to a supermassive black hole.

Artist's representation of an active galactic nucleus (AGN) at the center of a galaxy. Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss
Artist’s representation of an active galactic nucleus (AGN) at the center of a galaxy. Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

Radio-loud galaxies can also be subdivded into categories like radio galaxies, quasars, and blazars. As the name suggests, radio galaxies are elliptical galaxies that are strong emitters of radiowaves. Quasars are the most luminous type of AGN, which have spectra similar to Seyferts.

However, they are different in that their stellar absorption features are weak or absent (meaning they are likely less dense in terms of gas) and the narrow emission lines are weaker than the broad lines seen in Seyferts.  Blazars are a highly variable class of AGN that are radio sources, but do not display emission lines in their spectra.


Historically speaking, a number of features have been observed within the centers of galaxies that have allowed for them to be identified as AGNs. For instance, whenever the accretion disk can be seen directly, nuclear-optical emissions can be seen. Whenever the accretion disk is obscured by gas and dust close to the nucleus, an AGN can be detected by its infra-red emissions.

Then there are the broad and narrow optical emission lines that are associated with different types of AGN. In the former case, they are produced whenever cold material is close to the black hole, and are the result of the emitting material revolving around the black hole with high speeds (causing a range of Doppler shifts of the emitted photons). In the former case, more distant cold material is the culprit, resulting in narrower emission lines.

Image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope of a 5000-light-year-long jet ejected from the active galaxy M87. The blue synchrotron radiation contrasts with the yellow starlight from the host galaxy. Credit: NASA/The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
Image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope of a 5000-light-year-long jet ejected from the active galaxy M87. Credit: NASA/The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Next up, there are radio continuum and x-ray continuum emissions. Whereas radio emissions are always the result of the jet, x-ray emissions can arise from either the jet or the hot corona, where electromagnetic radiation is scattered. Last, there are x-ray line emissions, which occur when x-ray emissions illuminate the cold heavy material that lies between it and the nucleus.

These signs, alone or in combination, have led astronomers to make numerous detections at the center of galaxies, as well as to discern the different types of active nuclei out there.

The Milky Way Galaxy:

In the case of the Milky Way, ongoing observation has revealed that the amount of material accreted onto Sagitarrius A is consistent with an inactive galactic nucleus. It has been theorized that it had an active nucleus in the past, but has since transitioned into a radio-quiet phase. However, it has also been theorized that it might become active again in a few million (or billion) years.

When the Andromeda Galaxy merges with our own in a few billion years, the supermassive black hole that is at its center will merge with our own, producing a much more massive and powerful one. At this point, the nucleus of the resulting galaxy – the Milkdromeda (Andrilky) Galaxy, perhaps? – will certainly have enough material for it to be active.

The discovery of active galactic nuclei has allowed astronomers to group together several different classes of galaxies. It’s also allowed astronomers to understand how a galaxy’s size can be discerned by the behavior at its core. And last, it has also helped astronomers to understand which galaxies have undergone mergers in the past, and what could be coming for our own someday.

We have written many articles about galaxies for Universe Today. Here’s What Fuels the Engine of a Supermassive Black Hole?, Could the Milky Way Become a Black Hole?, What is a Supermassive Black Hole?, Turning on a Supermassive Black Hole, What Happens when Supermassive Black Holes Collide?.

For more information, check out Hubblesite’s News Releases on Galaxies, and here’s NASA’s Science Page on Galaxies.

Astronomy Cast also has episodes about galactic nuclei and supermassive black holes. Here’s Episode 97: Galaxies and Episode 213: Supermassive Black Holes.


Black Holes, Fermi Bubbles and the Milky Way

Deep at the heart of our galaxy lurks a black hole. This isn’t exciting news, but neither is it a very exciting place. Or is it? While all might be quiet on the western front now, there may be evidence that our galactic center was once home to some pretty impressive activity – activity which may have included multiple collision events and mergers of black holes as it gorged on a satellite galaxies. Thanks to new insights from a pair of assistant professors, Kelly Holley-Bockelmann at Vanderbilt and Tamara Bogdanovic at Georgia Institute of Technology, we have more evidence which points to the Milky Way’s incredibly active past.

“Tamara and I had just attended an astronomy conference in Aspen, Colorado, where several of these new observations were announced,” said Holley-Bockelmann. “It was January 2010 and a snow storm had closed the airport. We decided to rent a car to drive to Denver. As we drove through the storm, we pieced together the clues from the conference and realized that a single catastrophic event – the collision between two black holes about 10 million years ago – could explain all the new evidence.”

Now, imagine a night sky illuminated by a a huge nebula, one that covers half the celestial sphere. This isn’t a dream, it’s a reality. These massive lobes of high-energy radiation are known as Fermi bubbles and they cover a region some 30,000 light years on either side of the Milky Way’s core. While we can’t observe them directly in visible light, these particles are moving along at close to 186,000 miles per second and glowing in x-ray and gamma ray wavelengths.

According to Fulai Guo and William G. Mathews of the University of California at Santa Cruz: “The Fermi bubbles provide plausible evidence for a recent powerful AGN jet activity in our Galaxy, shedding new insights into the origin of the halo CR population and the channel through which massive black holes in disk galaxies release feedback energy during their growth.”

However, our galactic center is home to more than just some incredible bubbles – it’s the location of three of the most massive clusters of young stars within the Milky Way’s realm. Known as the Central, Arches and Quintuplet clusters, each grouping houses several hundred hot, young stars which dwarf the Sun. They will live short, bright, violent lives… burning out in a scant few million years. Because they live fast and die young, these cluster stars must have formed within recent years during a eruption of star formation near the galactic center – another clue to this cosmic puzzle.

“Because of their high mass, and apparent top-heavy IMF, the Galactic Center clusters contain some of the most massive stars in the Galaxy. This is important, as massive stars are key ingredients and probes of astrophysical phenomena on all size and distance scales, from individual star formation sites, such as Orion, to the early Universe during the age of reionization when the first stars were born. As ingredients, they control the dynamical and chemical evolution of their local environs and individual galaxies through their influence on the energetics and composition of the interstellar medium.” says Donald F. Figer. “They likely play an important role in the early evolution of the first galaxies, and there is evidence that they are the progenitors of the most energetic explosions in the Universe, seen as gamma ray bursts. As probes, they define the upper limits of the star formation process and their presence likely ends further formation of nearby lower mass stars. They are also prominent output products of galactic mergers, starburst galaxies, and active galactic nuclei.”

To deepen the mystery, take a closer look at our central black hole. It spans about 40 light seconds in diameter and weighs about four million solar masses. According to what we know, this should produce intensive gravitational tides – ones that should be sucking in the surroundings. So how is it that astronomers have uncovered groups of new, bright stars closer than 3 light years from the event horizon? Of course, they could be on their way to oblivion, but the data shows these stars seem to have formed there. That’s quite a feat considering it would require a molecular cloud 10,000 times more dense than the one located at our galactic center! Shouldn’t there also be old stars located there as well? The answer is yes, there should be… but there are far fewer than what we can observe and what current theoretical models predict.

Holley-Bockelmann wasn’t about to let the problem rest. When she returned home, she enlisted the aid of Vanderbilt graduate student Meagan Lang to help solve the riddle. Then they recruited Pau Amaro-Seoane from the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Germany, Alberto Sesana from the Institut de Ciències de l’Espai in Spain, and Vanderbilt Research Assistant Professor Manodeep Sinha to help. With so many bright minds to help solve this riddle, they soon arrived at a plausible explanation – one which matches observations and allows for testable predictions.

According to their theory, a Milky Way satellite galaxy began migrating towards our core. As it merged with our galaxy, its mass was torn away, leaving only its black hole and a small collection of gravitationally bound stars. After several million years, this “leftover” eventually reached the galactic center and the black holes began to merge. As the smaller black hole was swirled around the larger, it plowed up huge furrows of gas and dust, pushing it into the larger black hole and created the Fermi bubbles. The dueling gravitational forces weren’t gentle… these intense tides were quite capable of compressing the molecular clouds surrounding the core into the density required to produce fresh, young stars. Perhaps the very young stars we now observe at the galactic center?

However, there’s more to the picture than meets the eye. This same plowing of the cosmic turf would have also pushed out existing older stars from the vicinity of the massive central black hole. It’s a scene which fits current models where a black hole merger flings stars out into the galaxy at hyper velocities… a scene which fits the observation of a lack of old stars at the boundaries of our supermassive black hole.

“The gravitational pull of the satellite galaxy’s black hole could have carved nearly 1,000 stars out of the galactic centre,” said Bogdanovic. “Those stars should still be racing through space, about 10,000 light years away from their original orbits.”

Can any of this be proved? The answer is yes. Thanks to large scale surveys like the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, we should be able to pinpoint stars moving at a higher velocity than stars which haven’t been subjected to a similar interaction. If astronomers like Holley-Bockelmann and Bogdanovic look at the hard evidence, they are likely to discover a credible number of high velocity stars which will validate their Milky Way merger model.

Or are they just blowing bubbles?

Messier 106: Amateur and Professional Astronomers Join Together to Peer Into the Eyes of Creation

Nearly four million light years away in the direction of the constellation of Canes Venatici, a visage of creation awaited to be revealed. Now, thanks to the teamwork of the astronomical image processors at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, and world-renowned astrophotographers Robert Gendler and Jay GaBany, we’re able to see combined Hubble Space Telescope data with ground-based telescope imaging. Let’s look deep into spiral galaxy, Messier 106.

This wasn’t an overnight imaging project. “A few months ago the Hubble Heritage Team contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in making a large format image of M106 from the available data on the Hubble Legacy Archive,” says Gendler. “I agreed and went to work downloading a large number of data sets from the HLA. I realized this would be a massive project. The image would be a mosaic of more than 30 panels and would incorporate both wideband and narrowband data sets.”

With the cooperation of Jay GaBany, they combined their own observations/images of this magnificent structure and compiled it with Hubble data – filling in areas where no data was available. The resulting image is a portrait of such depth and beauty that it’s almost like looking into the eyes of creation itself.

Be swept away…

If you’re drawn to the core of Messier 106, there’s good reason. It isn’t just an ordinary spiral galaxy, it’s one that has a peculiar jet flow which can be detected in radio and in H-alpha wavelengths. “Due to the special geometry of the galaxy, the jets emerge from the nuclear region through the galactic disk,” says Marita Krause (et al). “Also the distribution of molecular gas looks different from that in other spiral galaxies.” It is just this difference that makes NGC 4258 (M106) stand out a bit from the crowd and so worthy of further processing. According to new modeling techniques the “concentration of CO along the ridges is due to interaction of the rotating gas clouds with the jet’s magnetic field by ambipolar diffusion. This magnetic interaction is thought to increase the time the molecular clouds reside near the jet thus leading to the quasi-static CO ridge.”

Knowing those jets are present and the hunger to reveal them through imaging became the driving force for R. Jay GaBany. “Since the early 1960s, M106, also known as NGC 4258, has been known to exhibit an extra pair of arms, located between the spiral arms comprised of stars, dust and gas. But an explanation for their existence remained elusive until earlier in this decade,” says Jay. “My contribution to the image came from my 2010 image of M-106 that revealed the full extent of its amazing jets. My image include 22 hours of white light exposures through clear, red, blue and green filters plus and other 15 hours of imaging through a 6nm narrow band h-alpha filter.”

Messier 106 Courtesy of R. Jay GaBany
Messier 106 Courtesy of R. Jay GaBany

“Seen in the light emitted by hydrogen molecules when they become ionized, these arms display an artificial red hue to make them visible in the image I produced. The extra arms are now believed to be caused by high energy jets emanating from an active 40 million solar mass super-massive black hole menacing the galaxy’s center,” explains GaBany. “Because the jets are tilted at a low inclination they pierce the disk and surrounding halo of this galaxy. So, as the jets pass through regions of gas, they create an expanding cocoon of shock waves that heats the surrounding material causing it to release radiation in optical wavelengths. The curvature and fraying seen at their extremities represents previous trajectories of the jet due to past precession. Precession is a change in the orientation of the rotation axis of a spinning object. For example, the wobble of a spinning top.”

Yet, that’s not all. This low luminosity Seyfert II galaxy is also hosting a maser – its warped disk of water molecules discovered in 1994. Through radio observations, M106 became the first of its kind to show the exact location of the core of an AGN (active galactic nucleus). According to a study done by JR Herrnstein (et al): “NGC 4258 is an exceptional laboratory for the study of AGN accretion processes. The nuclear maser reveals details about the kinematics and structure of the accretion disk on subparsec scales and permits the determination of the central mass with great precision.”

And there is still more…

Deep inside lurks that known supermassive black hole – one that’s extremely active and produces bright microwave radiation. But, don’t stop there. Ordinarily a spiral galaxy has two arms, but M106 has double. These ethereal “extras” can be seen as faint ribbons of gas at optical wavelengths, but become solidified when viewed in x-ray and radio. Here the structure is formed in hot gas rather than stars. While this process was once a mystery to astronomers, new information suggests they may arise from the black hole activity, making them a unique artifact. What could cause it? These “extra arms” could be the result of the violent turbulence at the core – where gases are superheated and interact with their denser counterparts causing them to illuminate. At the perimeter of the galactic structure, the gases are more loose and the arching formation could be the product of the movement of jet activity.

“One goal I had early on was to feature the well known ‘anomalous arms’ of M106,” said Gendler. “This feature, peculiar to M106, is thought to arise from superheated gases, energized by accretion of matter into the galaxy’s massive black hole. The anomalous arms emit light in the visual spectrum around 656nm (hydrogen alpha) and I found a fair amount of hydrogen alpha data sets for the arms in the HLA.”

Gendler was responsible for all the image assembly and processing. “Assembling the image required over two months,” he said. “The quality of the data ranged from good to very poor. The central galaxy had sufficient color data but away from the center the Hubble data was incomplete and in some areas did not exist. I then decided to use ground based data from my own image and Jay GaBany’s image of M106 to fill in areas of missing or incomplete Hubble data. I also used ground based data to boost the signal of the outer areas of the galaxy as the Hubble data was sparse and of short exposure for the more remote areas of the galaxy.”

All in all, Messier 106 is a galaxy that deserves attention – attention and a loving touch given by two of the very best amateur astronomers and dedicated astrophotographers to be found.

Original News Source: HubbleSite Image Release.

Astronomers Discover Ancient ‘Ultra-Red’ Galaxies

[/caption]A team of astronomers, led by Jiasheng Huang (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) using the Spitzer Space Telescope, have discovered four ‘Ultra-Red’ galaxies that formed when our Universe was about a billion years old. Huang and his team used several computer models in an attempt to understand why these galaxies appear so red, stating, “We’ve had to go to extremes to get the models to match our observations.”

The results of Huang’s research were recently published in The Astrophysical Journal

Using the Spitzer Space Telescope helped make the discovery possible, as it is more sensitive to infrared light than other space telescopes such as the Hubble. The newly discovered galaxies are sixty times brighter in the infrared than they are at the longest/reddest wavelengths HST can detect.

What processes are at work to create these extremely red objects, and why are they of interest to astronomers?

There are several reasons a galaxy could be reddened. For starters, extremely distant galaxies can have their light “redshifted” due to the expansion of the universe. If a galaxy contains large amounts of dust, it will also appear redder than a galaxy with less dust. Lastly, older galaxies will tend to be redder, due to a higher concentration of old, red stars and less younger bluer stars.

According to the paper, Huang and his team created three models to determine why these galaxies appear so red. Of their models, the one which suggests an old stellar population is currently the best fit to the observations. Supporting this conclusion, co-author Giovanni Fazio stated, “Hubble has shown us some of the first protogalaxies that formed, but nothing that looks like this. In a sense, these galaxies might be a ‘missing link’ in galactic evolution”.

Studying these extremely distant galaxies helps provide astronomers with a better understanding of the early universe, specifically how early galaxies formed and what conditions were present when some of the first stars were created. The next step in understanding these “ERO” galaxies is to obtain an accurate redshift for the galaxies, by using more powerful telescopes such as the Large Millimeter Telescope or Atacama Large Millimeter Array.

Huang and his team have plans to search for more galaxies similar to the four recently discovered by his team. Huang’s co-author Giovanni Fazio adds, “There’s evidence for others in other regions of the sky. We’ll analyze more Spitzer and Hubble observations to track them down.”

If you’d like to learn more, you can access the full paper (via at:

Source: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics press release ,

Galaxy Interactions Could Cause Overweight Black Holes


Yep. It’s true. Almost all galaxies are guilty of having a supermassive black hole in their centers. Some even tip the scales at millions – or even billions – of times more mass than the Sun. However, how they came to be so weighty is a true enigma. Thanks to research done by Dr. John Silverman (IPMU) and the international COSMOS team, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory and the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope have revealed that galaxy interactions may be responsible for the growth of supermassive black holes – and they’ve left behind some very important clues…

If you’re big – you’re big. As a general rule, supermassive black holes like to hang out in massive galaxies. Their mass is usually directly related to the central bulge. Now the consensus is that massive galaxies gained their girth (at least in part) by mergers and interactions with smaller galaxies. This act of cannibalism in galactic evolution has been postulated to explain how matter gathers toward the middle, eventually resulting in a supermassive black hole.

How do we determine this? One way is to take a closer look at galaxies currently in merger as compared to ones in isolation. While the concept is easy, carrying out the test hasn’t been. A supermassive black hole leaves visual observations “blinded by the light” while a quasar can effectively “outshine” an entire host galaxy, leaving an interactor almost impossible to detect. But, like a bulging waistline, such interactions should distort the overall contours of the galaxy.

Now the COSMOS team might have an answer to the riddle.. by assuming a galaxy is interacting if it has a nearby neighbor. It’s a test that can happen without needing to know if distortion is present in optical images. What makes it possible are accurate distance measurements of about 20,000 galaxies in the COSMOS field as provided by the zCOSMOS redshift survey with the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope. Isolated galaxies are used to give a comparison sample to lay the foundation as to whether an active galactic nucleus is common to interacting galaxies. With help from NASA’s Chandra Observatory, X-ray observations pinpoint galaxies which host an AGN. The X-ray emission signature dominates in growing SMBHs and X-rays are capable of cutting through the gas and dust of star-forming regions.

In their report to The Astrophysical Journal the team states that galaxies in close pairs are twice as likely to harbor AGNs as compared to galaxies in isolation. This answer may prove that beginning galaxy interactions can lead to “enhanced black hole growth”. Because it’s not a drastically common occcurrance, it means that only about 20% of SMBHs that break the scale happen via a merger event and that “final coalescence” might also play a role.

One thing we do know is that galaxies and their black holes, like people and their waistlines, all get a little heavier with time.

Original Story Source: Institute for Physics and Mathematics of the Univserse.