At the heart of most massive galaxies in our Universe, there are supermassive black holes (SMBH) on the order of millions to billions of times the mass of the Sun. As these behemoths consume gas and dust that’s slowly fed into their maws, they release tremendous amounts of energy. This leads to what is known as an Active Galactic Nucleus (AGN) – aka. a quasar – which can sometimes send hypervelocity jets of material for light-years.
Since they were first discovered, astrophysicists have suspected that SMBHs play an important role in the formation and evolution of galaxies. However, as a result, there has also been considerable research dedicated to how these massive objects form and evolve themselves. Recently, a team of astrophysicists conducted a high-powered simulation that showed exactly how SMBHs feed and determined that a galaxy’s arms play a vital role.
Black holes don’t emit light, which makes them difficult to study. Fortunately, many black holes are loud eaters. As they consume nearby matter, surrounding material is superheated. As a result, the material can glow intensely, or be thrown away from the black hole as relativistic jets. By studying the light from this material we can study black holes. And as a recent study shows, we can even determine their size.
On April 10th, 2019, the world was treated to the first image of a black hole, courtesy of the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). Specifically, the image was of the Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH) at the center of the supergiant elliptical galaxy known as M87 (aka. Virgo A). These powerful forces of nature are found at the centers of most massive galaxies, which include the Milky Way (where the SMBH known as Sagittarius A* is located).
Using a technique known as Very-Long-Baseline Interferometry (VLBI), this image signaled the birth of a new era for astronomers, where they can finally conduct detailed studies of these powerful forces of nature. Thanks to research performed by the EHT Collaboration team during a six-hour observation period in 2017, astronomers are now being treated to images of the core region of Centaurus A and the radio jet emanating from it.
NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope may be retired, but the things it witnessed during its sixteen and a half year mission will be the subject of study for many years to come. For instance, Spitzer is the only telescope to witness something truly astounding occurring at the center of the distant galaxy OJ 287: a supermassive black hole (SMBH) orbited by another black hole that regularly passes through its accretion disk.
Whenever this happens, it causes a flash that is brighter than all the stars in the Milky Way combined. Using Spitzer‘s observations, an international team of astronomers was able to finally create a model that accurately predicts the timing of these flashes and the orbit of the smaller black hole. In addition to demonstrating General Relativity in action, their findings also provide validation to Stephen Hawking‘s “no-hair theorem.”
Black holes are the one the most intriguing and awe-inspiring forces of nature. They are also one of the most mysterious because of the way the rules of conventional physics break down in their presence. Despite decades of research and observations there is still much we don’t know about them. In fact, until recently, astronomers had never seen an image of black hole and were unable to guage their mass.
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.
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.
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.”
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…
Ever since the discovery of Sagittarius A* at the center of our galaxy, astronomers have come to understand that most massive galaxies have a Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH) at their core. These are evidenced by the powerful electromagnetic emissions produced at the nuclei of these galaxies – which are known as “Active Galatic Nuclei” (AGN) – that are believed to be caused by gas and dust accreting onto the SMBH.
For decades, astronomers have been studying the light coming from AGNs to determine how large and massive their black holes are. This has been difficult, since this light is subject to the Doppler effect, which causes its spectral lines to broaden. But thanks to a new model developed by researchers from China and the US, astronomers may be able to study these Broad Line Regions (BLRs) and make more accurate estimates about the mass of black holes.
To break it down, SMBHs are known for having a torus of gas and dust that surrounds them. The black hole’s gravity accelerates gas in this torus to velocities of thousands of kilometers per second, which causes it to heat up and emit radiation at different wavelengths. This energy eventually outshined the entire surrounding galaxy, which is what allows astronomers to determine the presence of an SMBH.
As Michael Brotherton, a UW professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and a co0author on the study, explained in a UW press release:
“People think, ‘It’s a black hole. Why is it so bright?’ A black hole is still dark. The discs reach such high temperatures that they put out radiation across the electromagnetic spectrum, which includes gamma rays, X-rays, UV, infrared and radio waves. The black hole and surrounding accreting gas the black hole is feeding on is fuel that turns on the quasar.”
The problem with observing these bright regions comes from the fact that the gases within them are moving so quickly in different directions. Whereas gas moving away (relative to us) is shifted towards the red end of the spectrum, gas that is moving towards us is shifted towards the blue end. This is what leads to a Broad Line Region, where the spectrum of the emitted light becomes more like a spiral, making accurate readings difficult to obtain.
Currently, the measurement of the mass of SMBHs in active galactic nuclei relies the “reverberation mapping technique”. In short, this involves using computer models to examine the symmetrical spectral lines of a BLR and measuring the time delays between them. These lines are believed to arise from gas that has been photoionized by the gravitational force of the SMBH.
However, since there is little understanding of broad emission lines and the different components of BLRs, this method gives rise to some uncertainties off between 200 and 300%. “We are trying to get at more detailed questions about spectral broad-line regions that help us diagnose the black hole mass,” said Brotherton. “People don’t know where these broad emission line regions come from or the nature of this gas.”
In contrast, the team led by Dr. Wang adopted a new type of computer model that considered the dynamics of the gas torus surrounding a SMBH. This torus, they assume, would be made up of discrete clumps of matter that would be tidally disrupted by the black hole, resulting in some gas flowing into it (aka. accreting on it) and some being ejected as outflow.
From this, they found that the emission lines in a BLR are subject to three characteristics – “asymmetry”, “shape” and “shift”. After examining various emissions lines – both symmetrical and asymmetrical – they found that these three characteristics were strongly dependent on how bright the gas clumps were, which they interpreted as being a result of the angle of their motion within the torus. Or as Dr. Brotherton put it:
“What we propose happens is these dusty clumps are moving. Some bang into each other and merge, and change velocity. Maybe they move into the quasar, where the black hole lives. Some of the clumps spin in from the broad-line region. Some get kicked out.”
In the end, their new model suggests that tidally disrupted clumps of matter from a black hole torus may represent the source of the BLR gas. Compared to previous models, the one devised by Dr. Wang and his colleagues establishes a connection between different key processes and components in the vicinity of a SMBH. These include the feeding of the black hole, the source of photoionized gas, and the dusty torus itself.
While this research does not resolve all the mysteries surrounding AGNs, it is an important step towards obtaining accurate mass estimates of SMBHs based on their spectral lines. From these, astronomers could be able to more accurately determine what role these black holes played in the evolution of large galaxies.
The study was made possible thanks with support provided by the National Key Program for Science and Technology Research and Development, and the Key Research Program of Frontier Sciences, both of which are administered by the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Last week, astronomers at Yale University reported seeing something unusual: a seemingly stedfast beacon from the far reaches of the Universe went quiet. This relic light source, a quasar located in the region of our sky known as the celestial equator, unexpectedly became 6-7 times dimmer over the first decade of the 21st century. Thanks to this dramatic change in luminosity, astronomers now have an unprecedented opportunity to study both the life cycle of quasars and the galaxies that they once called home.
A quasar arises from a distant (and therefore, very old) galaxy that once contained a central, rotating supermassive black hole – what astronomers call an active galactic nucleus. This spinning beast ravenously swallowed up large amounts of ambient gas and dust, kicking up surrounding material and sending it streaming out of the galaxy at blistering speeds. Quasars shine because these ancient jets achieved tremendous energies, thereby giving rise to a torrent of light so powerful that astronomers are still able to detect it here on Earth, billions of years later.
In their hey-day, some active galactic nuclei were also energetic enough to excite electrons farther away from the central black hole. But even in the very early Universe, electrons couldn’t withstand that kind of excitement forever; the laws of physics don’t allow it. Eventually, each electron would drop back down to its rest state, releasing a photon of corresponding energy. This cycle of excitation happened over and over and over again, in regular and predictable patterns. Modern astronomers can visualize those transitions – and the energies that caused them – by examining a quasar’s optical spectrum for characteristic emission lines at certain wavelengths.
Not all quasars are created equal, however. While the spectra of some quasars reveal many bright, broad emission lines at different energies, other quasars’ spectra consist of only the dim, narrow variety. Until now, some astronomers thought that these variations in emission lines among quasars were simply due to differences in their orientation as seen from Earth; that is, the more face-on a quasar was relative to us, the broader the emission lines astronomers would be able to see.
But all of that has now been thrown into question, thanks to our friend J015957.64+003310.5, the quasar revealed by the team of astronomers at Yale. Indeed, it is now plausible that a quasar’s pattern of emission lines simply changes over its lifetime. After gathering ten years of spectral observations from the quasar, the researchers observed its original change in brightness in 2010. In July 2014, they confirmed that it was still just as dim, disproving hypotheses that suggested the effect was simply due to intervening gas or dust. “We’ve looked at hundreds of thousands of quasars at this point, and now we’ve found one that has switched off,” explained C. Megan Urry, the study’s co-author.
How would that happen, you ask? After observing the comparable dearth of broad emission lines in its spectrum, Urry and her colleagues believe that long ago, the black hole at the heart of the quasar simply went on a diet. After all, an active galactic nucleus that consumed less material would generate less energy, giving rise to fainter particle jets and fewer excited atoms. “The power source just went dim,” said Stephanie LaMassa, the study’s principal investigator.
LaMassa continued, “Because the life cycle of a quasar is one of the big unknowns, catching one as it changes, within a human lifetime, is amazing.” And since the life cycle of quasars is dependent on the life cycle of supermassive black holes, this discovery may help astronomers to explain how those that lie at the center of most galaxies evolve over time – including Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of our own Milky Way.
“Even though astronomers have been studying quasars for more than 50 years, it’s exciting that someone like me, who has studied black holes for almost a decade, can find something completely new,” added LaMassa.
The team’s research will be published in an upcoming issue of The Astrophysical Journal. A pre-print of the paper is available here.