New Simulation Models Galaxies Like Never Before

Zooming into an EAGLE galaxy. Credit: EAGLE Project Consortium/Schaye et al.

Astronomy is, by definition, intangible. Traditional laboratory-style experiments that utilize variables and control groups are of little use to the scientists who spend their careers analyzing the intricacies our Universe. Instead, astronomers rely on simulations – robust, mathematically-driven facsimiles of the cosmos – to investigate the long-term evolution of objects like stars, black holes, and galaxies. Now, a team of European researchers has broken new ground with their development of the EAGLE project: a simulation that, due to its high level of agreement between theory and observation, can be used to probe the earliest epochs of galaxy formation, over 13 billion years ago.

The EAGLE project, which stands for Evolution and Assembly of GaLaxies and their Environments, owes much of its increased accuracy to the better modeling of galactic winds. Galactic winds are powerful streams of charged particles that “blow” out of galaxies as a result of high-energy processes like star formation, supernova explosions, and the regurgitation of material by active galactic nuclei (the supermassive black holes that lie at the heart of most galaxies). These mighty winds tend to carry gas and dust out of the galaxy, leaving less material for continued star formation and overall growth.

Previous simulations were problematic for researchers because they produced galaxies that were far older and more massive than those that astronomers see today; however, EAGLE’s simulation of strong galactic winds fixes these anomalies. By accounting for characteristic, high-speed ejections of gas and dust over time, researchers found that younger and lighter galaxies naturally emerged.

After running the simulation on two European supercomputers, the Cosmology Machine at Durham University in England and Curie in France, the researchers concluded that the EAGLE project was a success. Indeed, the galaxies produced by EAGLE look just like those that astronomers expect to see when they look to the night sky. Richard Bower, a member of the team from Durham, raved, “The universe generated by the computer is just like the real thing. There are galaxies everywhere, with all the shapes, sizes and colours I’ve seen with the world’s largest telescopes. It is incredible.”

The upshots of this new work are not limited to scientists alone; you, too, can explore the Universe with EAGLE by downloading the team’s Cosmic Universe app. Videos of the EAGLE project’s simulations are also available on the team’s website.

A paper detailing the team’s work is published in the January 1 issue of Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. A preprint of the results is available on the ArXiv.

Navigating the Cosmos by Quasar

A quasar resides in the hub of the nearby galaxy NGC 4438. Credit: NASA/ESA, Jeffrey Kenney (Yale University), Elizabeth Yale (Yale University)

50 million light-years away a quasar resides in the hub of galaxy NGC 4438, an incredibly bright source of light and radiation that’s the result of a supermassive black hole actively feeding on nearby gas and dust (and pretty much anything else that ventures too closely.) Shining with the energy of 1,000 Milky Ways, this quasar — and others like it — are the brightest objects in the visible Universe… so bright, in fact, that they are used as beacons for interplanetary navigation by various exploration spacecraft.

“I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.”
– John Masefield, “Sea Fever”

Deep-space missions require precise navigation, especially when approaching bodies such as Mars, Venus, or comets. It’s often necessary to pinpoint a spacecraft traveling 100 million km from Earth to within just 1 km. To achieve this level of accuracy, experts use quasars – the most luminous objects known in the Universe – as beacons in a technique known as Delta-Differential One-Way Ranging, or delta-DOR.

How delta-DOR works (ESA)
How delta-DOR works (ESA)

Delta-DOR uses two antennas in distant locations on Earth (such as Goldstone in California and Canberra in Australia) to simultaneously track a transmitting spacecraft in order to measure the time difference (delay) between signals arriving at the two stations.

Unfortunately the delay can be affected by several sources of error, such as the radio waves traveling through the troposphere, ionosphere, and solar plasma, as well as clock instabilities at the ground stations.

Delta-DOR corrects these errors by tracking a quasar that is located near the spacecraft for calibration — usually within ten degrees. The chosen quasar’s direction is already known extremely well through astronomical measurements, typically to closer than 50 billionths of a degree (one nanoradian, or 0.208533 milliarcsecond). The delay time of the quasar is subtracted from that of the spacecraft’s, providing the delta-DOR measurement and allowing for amazingly high-precision navigation across long distances.

“Quasar locations define a reference system. They enable engineers to improve the precision of the measurements taken by ground stations and improve the accuracy of the direction to the spacecraft to an order of a millionth of a degree.”

– Frank Budnik, ESA flight dynamics expert

So even though the quasar in NGC 4438 is located 50 million light-years from Earth, it can help engineers position a spacecraft located 100 million kilometers away to an accuracy of several hundred meters. Now that’s a star to steer her by!

Read more about Delta-DOR here and here.

Source: ESA Operations

Jets Boost — Not Hinder — Star Formation in Early Galaxies, New Study Suggests

An artist's conception of jets protruding from a quasar. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Understanding the formation of stars and galaxies early in the Universe’s history continues to be somewhat of an enigma, and a new study may have turned our current understanding on its head. A recent survey used archival data from four different telescopes to analyze hundreds of galaxies. The results provided overwhelming evidence that radio jets protruding from a galactic center enhance star formation – a result that directly contradicts current models, where star formation is hindered or even stopped.

All early galaxies consist of intensely luminous cores powered by huge black holes.  These so-called active galactic nuclei, or AGN for short, are still the topic of intense study. One specific mechanism astronomers are studying is known as AGN feedback.

“Feedback is the astronomer’s slang term for the way in which an AGN – with its large amount of energy release – influences its host galaxy,” Dr. Zinn, lead researcher on this study, recently told Universe Today. He explained there is both positive feedback, in which the AGN will foster the main activity of the galaxy: star formation, and negative feedback, in which the AGN will hinder or even stop star formation.

Current simulations of galaxy growth invoke strong negative feedback.

“In most cosmological simulations, AGN feedback is used to truncate star formation in the host galaxy,” said Zinn. “This is necessary to prevent the simulated galaxies from becoming too bright/massive.”

Zinn et al. found strong evidence that this is not the case for a large number of early galaxies, claiming that the presence of an AGN actually enhances star formation. In such cases the total star formation rate of a galaxy may be boosted by a factor of 2 – 5.

Furthermore the team showed that positive feedback occurs in radio-luminous AGN. There is strong correlation between the far infrared (indicative of star formation) and the radio.

Now, a correlation between the radio and the far infrared is no stranger to galactic astronomy. Stars form in extremely dusty regions. This dust absorbs the starlight and re-emits it in the far infrared. The stars then die in huge supernova explosions, causing powerful shock-fronts, which accelerate electrons and lead to the emission of strong synchrotron radiation in the radio.

This correlation however is a stranger to AGN studies. The key lies in the radio jets, which penetrate far into the host galaxy itself.  A “jet which is launched from the AGN hits the interstellar gas of the host galaxy and thereby induces supersonic shocks and turbulence,” explains Zinn. “This shortens the clumping time of gas so that it can condense into stars much more quick and efficiently.”

This new finding conveys that the exact mechanisms in which AGN interact with their host galaxies is much more complicated than previously thought. Future observations will likely shed a new understanding of the evolution of galaxies.

The team used data primarily from the Chandra Deep Field South image
but also data from Hubble, Herschel and Spitzer.

The results will be published in the Astrophysical Journal (preprint available here).

Dust In The Wind… Black Hole Style

This artist’s impression shows the surroundings of the supermassive black hole at the heart of the active galaxy NGC 3783 in the southern constellation of Centaurus (The Centaur). Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Over the years, researchers have taken myriad observations of black holes and their environs, but now ESO’s Very Large Telescope Interferometer is giving us the most detailed look of the dust around a black hole at the center of an active galaxy ever obtained. Originally expected to be contained within the ring-shaped torus around the black hole, the observation held a surprise as astronomers discovered that a significant amount of the dust was located both above and below the torus. What can this mean? According to the latest findings and contrary to popular theory, it is possible the dust is being evacuated from the region as a cool wind.

For the last two decades, astronomers have discovered that nearly all galaxies harbor a black hole at their hearts. In many cases, these monsters increase in size by accreting matter from the immediate vicinity. This, in turn, is responsible for the creation of active galactic nuclei (AGN), one of the most energetic objects in the Universe. Surrounding the super-luminous giants are rings of cosmic dust which originate from space – drawn in like water swirling down a dark drain. According to theory, the intense infrared radiation exerted by AGN must have originated from these dusty eddies.

Thanks to the powerful eye of the Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile, astronomers have now seen something new in a nearby active galaxy cataloged as NGC 3783. While they observed the expected hot dust clocking in at some 700 to 1000 degrees Celsius, what they also observed confounded them… Huge amounts of cooler dust both above and below the main torus.

As Sebastian Hönig (University of California Santa Barbara, USA and Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel, Germany), lead author of the paper presenting the new results, explains, “This is the first time we’ve been able to combine detailed mid-infrared observations of the cool, room-temperature dust around an AGN with similarly detailed observations of the very hot dust. This also represents the largest set of infrared interferometry for an AGN published yet.”

Is this a black hole teething ring? From their observations, the researchers suspect the newly-discovered dust is flowing outward from the central black hole. This means the wind most likely plays a critical part in the tangled relationship of both the black hole and its surroundings. Apparently the black hole pulls immediate material into it, but the incredible amount of radiation this produces also seems to be pushing it away. Scientists are far from clear as to how these two processes work together, but the discovery of this dusty wind could lead to a better understanding of their evolution.

To get the resolution needed to study the core area of NGC 3783, astronomers needed to use the combined power of the Unit Telescopes of ESO’s Very Large Telescope. Through this union, an interferometer is created – one capable of “seeing” with the equivalent of a 130-meter telescope.

Another team member, Gerd Weigelt (Max-Planck-Institut für Radioastronomie, Bonn, Germany), explains, “By combining the world-class sensitivity of the large mirrors of the VLT with interferometry we are able to collect enough light to observe faint objects. This lets us study a region as small as the distance from our Sun to its closest neighbouring star, in a galaxy tens of millions of light-years away. No other optical or infrared system in the world is currently capable of this.”

What do these new observations mean to the world of astronomy? It might very well change the pattern of how we currently understand AGN. With proof that dust is being expelled by intense radiation, new models must be created – models which include this recent information of how dust can be distributed.

Hönig concludes, “I am now really looking forward to MATISSE, which will allow us to combine all four VLT Unit Telescopes at once and observe simultaneously in the near- and mid-infrared — giving us much more detailed data.” MATISSE, a second generation instrument for the VLTI, is currently under construction.

Original Story Source: ESO News Release.

Bright Blazar’s Emission Defies Explanations

Artist's concept of the Hubble Space Telescope viewing ultraviolet light from the jet of the active galactic nucleus of PKS 1424+240. Clouds of hydrogen gas along the line of sight absorb the light at known frequencies, allowing the redshift and distance of each cloud to be determined. The most distant gas cloud determines the minimum distance to PKS 1424+240. Data from the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, shown on the horizon at the left, were also used for this study. (Image composition by Nina McCurdy, component images courtesy of NASA)

When it comes to sheer wattage, blazars definitely rule. As the brightest of active galactic nuclei, these sources of extreme high-energy gamma rays are usually associated with relativistic jets of material spewing into space and enabled by matter falling into a host galaxy’s black hole. The further away they are, the dimmer they should be, right? Not necessarily. According to new observations of blazar PKS 1424+240, the emission spectrum might hold a new twist… one that can’t be readily explained.

David Williams, adjunct professor of physics at UC Santa Cruz, said the findings may indicate something new about the emission mechanisms of blazars, the extragalactic background light, or the propagation of gamma-ray photons over long distances. “There may be something going on in the emission mechanisms of the blazar that we don’t understand,” Williams said. “There are more exotic explanations as well, but it may be premature to speculate at this point.”

The Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope was the first instrument to detect gamma rays from PKS 1424+240, and the observation was then seconded by VERITAS (Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System) – a terrestrially based tool designed to be sensitive to gamma-rays in the very high-energy (VHE) band. However, these weren’t the only science gadgets in action. To help determine the redshift of the blazar, researchers also employed the Hubble Space Telescope’s Cosmic Origins Spectrograph.

To help understand what they were seeing, the team then set a lower limit for the blazar’s redshift, taking it to a distance of at least 7.4 billion light-years. If their guess is correct, such a huge distance would mean that the majority of the gamma rays should have been absorbed by the extragalactic background light, but again the answers didn’t add up. For that amount of absorption, the blazar itself would be creating a very unexpected emission spectrum.

“We’re seeing an extraordinarily bright source which does not display the characteristic emission expected from a very high-energy blazar,” said Amy Furniss, a graduate student at the Santa Cruz Institute for Particle Physics (SCIPP) at UCSC and first author of a paper describing the new findings.

Bright? You bet. In this circumstance it has to over-ride the ever-present extragalactic background light (EBL). The whole Universe is filled with this “stellar light pollution”. We know it’s there – produced by countless stars and galaxies – but it’s just hard to measure. What we do know is that when a high-energy gamma ray photo meets with a low-energy EBL photon, they essentially cancel each other out. It stands to reason that the further a gamma ray has to travel, the more likely it is to encounter the EBL, putting a limit on the distance to which we can detect high-energy gamma ray sources. By lowering the limit, the new model was then used to ” calculate the expected absorption of very high-energy gamma rays from PKS 1424+240″. This should have allowed Furniss’ team to gather an intrinsic gamma-ray emission spectrum for the most distant blazar yet captured – but all it did was confuse the issue. It just doesn’t coincide with expected emissions using current models.

“We’re finding very high-energy gamma-ray sources at greater distances than we thought we might, and in doing so we’re finding some things we don’t entirely understand,” Williams said. “Having a source at this distance will allow us to better understand how much background absorption there is and test the cosmological models that predict the extragalactic background light.”

Original Story Source: University of California Santa Cruz News Release. For further reading: The Firm Redshift Lower Limit of the Most Distant TeV-Detected Blazar PKS 1424+240.

New Research Sheds Light On Black Hole Growth

The black hole that has grown the most can be found in the Sombrero galaxy . The researchers estimate that this black hole has been swallowing the equivalent of one Sun every twenty years and is now over 500 million times as heavy as the Sun. ESO Public Image Release

In a new study led by University of Central Lancashire astronomer Dr. Victor Debattista, researchers are looking into the mystery of how black holes grow and evolve. For many years, astronomers surmised black holes took on mass when their host galaxies merged, but now new modeling techniques show that black holes in spiral galaxies are forced to take on mass.

“Recent Hubble Space Telescope (HST) observations have revealed that a majority of active galactic nuclei (AGN) are resident in isolated disk galaxies, contrary to the usual expectation that AGN are triggered by mergers.” says Debattista. “Here we develop a new test of the cosmic evolution of supermassive black holes (SMBHs) in disk galaxies by considering the local population of SMBHs. We show that substantial SMBH growth in spiral galaxies is required as disks assemble.”

Weighing in a range of one million to one billion times that of the Sun, the black holes located at the core of most galaxies would appear to be gaining at much quicker rates than expected. These are not just exceptions – more like rules. Even the Milky Way’s quiescent black hole might be gaining as much mass as the Sun every 3,000 years. Past observations have shown growth during collision events, when huge amounts of gas around the black hole become intensely hot and shine as an active galactic nucleus. This is a process which can be spotted as far back as the first formations in our Universe. However, these new simulations are giving insight into large scale growth without the need for violence.

“The X-ray-selected sample of moderate luminosity AGN consists of more than 50% disk galaxies, with ongoing mergers evident no more frequently than in nonactive galaxies.” explains the research team. “Some show that even heavily obscured quasars are hosted largely by disks, not by mergers. Studies of star-formation using Herschel find that the specific star formation rates of X-ray selected AGN hosts are no different from those of inactive galaxies, also indicating that AGN hosts are not undergoing fundamentally different behaviors”

These modeling techniques, combined with current observations done with the Hubble Space Telescope, give credence to the theory that black holes can gain significant mass even in “quiet” spiral galaxies. As a matter of fact, there is a strong possibility that AGNs present in some spiral galaxies may even outnumber galaxy mergers. To make this concept even more exciting, astronomers are anticipating an event later this year in our own galaxy – an event where a gas cloud near the Milky Way’s nucleus will encounter our own central black hole. According to predictions, our black hole may take on as much as 15 Earth masses in a period of 10 years from this cloud.

This concept of black hole growth isn’t entirely new, though. According to other research done with the Hubble Space Telescope and led by Dr. Stelios Kazantzidis of Ohio State University and Professor Frank C. van den Bosch of Yale University, they had previously pinpointed mass properties of black holes – making size predictions which utilized the speed of stars residing in the galaxies. In this instance, the team disproved previous assumptions that black holes were unable to grow while the host galaxy grew. Their comparison of spiral and elliptical galaxies “found there is no mismatch between how big their black holes are.” This means black holes would be gaining in mass – growing along at the same rate as the galaxy itself.

“These simulations show that it is no longer possible to argue that black holes in spiral galaxies do not grow efficiently. ” comments Debattista on this new research. ” Our simulations will allow us to refine our understanding of how black holes grew in different types of galaxies.”

A Star’s Dying Scream May Be a Beacon for Physics

When a star suffered an untimely demise at the hands of a hidden black hole, astronomers detected its doleful, ululating wail — in the key of D-sharp, no less — from 3.9 billion light-years away. The resulting ultraluminous X-ray blast revealed the supermassive black hole’s presence at the center of a distant galaxy in March of 2011, and now that information could be used to study the real-life workings of black holes, general relativity, and a concept first proposed by Einstein in 1915.

Within the centers of many spiral galaxies (including our own) lie the undisputed monsters of the Universe: incredibly dense supermassive black holes, containing the equivalent masses of millions of Suns packed into areas smaller than the diameter of Mercury’s orbit. While some supermassive black holes (SMBHs) surround themselves with enormous orbiting disks of superheated material that will eventually spiral inwards to feed their insatiable appetites — all the while emitting ostentatious amounts of high-energy radiation in the process — others lurk in the darkness, perfectly camouflaged against the blackness of space and lacking such brilliant banquet spreads. If any object should find itself too close to one of these so-called “inactive” stellar corpses, it would be ripped to shreds by the intense tidal forces created by the black hole’s gravity, its material becoming an X-ray-bright accretion disk and particle jet for a brief time.

Such an event occurred in March 2011, when scientists using NASA’s Swift telescope detected a sudden flare of X-rays from a source located nearly 4 billion light-years away in the constellation Draco. The flare, called Swift J1644+57, showed the likely location of a supermassive black hole in a distant galaxy, a black hole that had until then remained hidden until a star ventured too close and became an easy meal.

See an animation of the event below:

The resulting particle jet, created by material from the star that got caught up in the black hole’s intense magnetic field lines and was blown out into space in our direction (at 80-90% the speed of light!) is what initially attracted astronomers’ attention. But further research on Swift J1644+57 with other telescopes has revealed new information about the black hole and what happens when a star meets its end.

(Read: The Black Hole that Swallowed a Screaming Star)

In particular, researchers have identified what’s called a quasi-periodic oscillation (QPO) embedded inside the accretion disk of Swift J1644+57. Warbling at 5 mhz, in effect it’s the low-frequency cry of a murdered star. Created by fluctuations in the frequencies of X-ray emissions, such a source near the event horizon of a supermassive black hole can provide clues to what’s happening in that poorly-understood region close to a black hole’s point-of-no-return.

Einstein’s theory of general relativity proposes that space itself around a massive rotating object — like a planet, star, or, in an extreme instance, a supermassive black hole — is dragged along for the ride (the Lense-Thirring effect.) While this is difficult to detect around less massive bodies a rapidly-rotating black hole would create a much more pronounced effect… and with a QPO as a benchmark within the SMBH’s disk the resulting precession of the Lense-Thirring effect could, theoretically, be measured.

If anything, further investigations of Swift J1644+57 could provide insight to the mechanics of general relativity in distant parts of the Universe, as well as billions of years in the past.

See the team’s original paper here, lead authored by R.C. Reis of the University of Michigan.

Thanks to Justin Vasel for his article on Astrobites.

Image: NASA. Video: NASA/GSFC

Dodging Black Hole Bullets

This 327-MHz radio view of the center of our galaxy highlights the position of the black hole system H1743-322, as well as other features. (Credit: J. Miller-Jones, ICRAR-Curtin Univ.; C. Brogan, NRAO)

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In mid-2009 a binary star system cataloged as H H1743–322 shot off something very unusual. Poised about 28,000 light years distant in the direction of the constellation of Scorpius, this rather ordinary system made up of a normal star and unknown mass black hole was busy exchanging mass. The pair orbits in mere days with a stream of material flowing continuously between them. This gas causes a flat accretion disk measuring millions of miles across to form and it is centered on the black hole. As the matter twirls toward the center, it becomes compressed and heats to tens of millions of degrees, spitting out X-rays… and bullets.

Utilizing data from NASA’s Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer (RXTE) satellite and the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) radio telescope, an international team of astronomers were able to confirm the moment a black hole located within our galaxy fired a super speedy clump of gas into surrounding space. Blasting forth at about one-quarter the speed of light, these “bullets” of ionized gas are hypothesized to have originated from an area just outside the black hole’s event horizon.

“Like a referee at a sports game, we essentially rewound the footage on the bullets’ progress, pinpointing when they were launched,” said Gregory Sivakoff of the University of Alberta in Canada. He presented the findings today at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Austin, Texas. “With the unique capabilities of RXTE and the VLBA, we can associate their ejection with changes that likely signaled the start of the process.”

As we have learned, some of the matter headed toward the center of a black hole can be ejected from the accretion disk as opposing twin jets. For the most part, these jets are a constant stream of particles, but can sometimes form into strong “outflows” which get spit out – rapid fire – as gaseous blobs. In early June 2009, H1743–322 did just that… and astronomers were on hand observing with RXTE, the VLBA, the Very Large Array near Socorro, N.M., and the Australia Telescope Compact Array (ATCA) near Narrabri in New South Wales. During this time they were able to confirm the happenings through X-ray and radio data. From May 28 to June 2, things were nominal “though RXTE data show that cyclic X-ray variations, known as quasi-periodic oscillations or QPOs, gradually increased in frequency over the same period” and by June 4th, ATCA verified that activity had pretty much sloughed off. By June 5th, even the QPOs were gone.

Then it happened…

On the same day that everything went totally quiet, H1743–322 fired off a bullet! Radio emissions jumped and a highly accurate and detailed VLBA image disclosed a energetic missile of gas blasting forth along a jet trajectory. The very next day a second bullet took out in the opposite direction. But this wasn’t the curious part of the event… It was the timing. Up to this point, researchers speculated that a radio outburst accompanied the firing of the gas bullet, but VLBA information showed they were launched around 48 hours in advance of the major radio flare. This information will be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Radio imaging by the Very Long Baseline Array (top row), combined with simultaneous X-ray observations by NASA's RXTE (middle), captured the transient ejection of massive gas "bullets" by the black hole binary H1743-322 during its 2009 outburst. By tracking the motion of these bullets with the VLBA, astronomers were able to link the ejection event to the disappearance of X-ray signals seen in RXTE data. These signals, called quasi-periodic oscillations (QPOs), vanished two days earlier than the onset of the radio flare that astronomers previously had assumed signaled the ejection. (Credit: NRAO and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center)

“This research provides new clues about the conditions needed to initiate a jet and can guide our thinking about how it happens,” said Chris Done, an astrophysicist at the University of Durham, England, who was not involved in the study.

These are just mini-ammo compared to what happens in the center of an active galaxy. They don’t just fire bullets – they blast off cannons. A massive black hole weighing in a millions to billions of times the mass of the Sun can shoot off its load across millions of light years!

“Black hole jets in binary star systems act as fast-forwarded versions of their galactic-scale cousins, giving us insights into how they work and how their enormous energy output can influence the growth of galaxies and clusters of galaxies,” said lead researcher James Miller-Jones at the International Center for Radio Astronomy Research at Curtin University in Perth, Australia.

Original Story Source: NASA News Feature.

First Look at a Black Hole’s Feast


A true heart of darkness lies at the center of our galaxy: Sagittarius A* (pronounced “A-star”) is a supermassive black hole with the mass of four million suns packed into an area only as wide as the distance between Earth and the Sun. Itself invisible to direct observation, Sgr A* makes its presence known through its effect on nearby stars, sending them hurtling through space in complex orbits at speeds upwards of 600 miles a second. And it emits a dull but steady glow in x-ray radiation, the last cries of its most recent meals. Gas, dust, stars… solar systems… anything in Sgr A*’s vicinity will be drawn inexorably towards it, getting stretched, shredded and ultimately absorbed (for lack of a better term) by the dark behemoth, just adding to its mass and further strengthening its gravitational pull.

Now, for the first time, a team of researchers led by Reinhard Genzel from the Max-Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany will have a chance to watch a supermassive black hole’s repast take place.

Continue reading “First Look at a Black Hole’s Feast”

Hubble Telescope Directly Observes Quasar Accretion Disc Surrounding Black Hole

A team of scientists has used the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope to observe a quasar accretion disc — a brightly glowing disc of matter that is slowly being sucked into its galaxy’s central black hole. Their study makes use of a novel technique that uses gravitational lensing to give an immense boost to the power of the telescope. The incredible precision of the method has allowed astronomers to directly measure the disc’s size and plot the temperature across different parts of the disc. Image credit: NASA, ESA, J.A. Munoz (University of Valencia)

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Thanks to the magic of the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, a team of international astronomers have made an incredible observation – a quasar accretion disc surrounding a black hole. By employing a technique known as gravitation lensing, the researchers have been able to get an accurate size measurement and spectral data. While you might not think this exciting at first, know that this type of observation is akin to spotting individual grains of sand on the Moon!

Of course, we know we can’t see a black hole – but we’ve learned a lot about them with time. One of their properties is a bright, visible phenomenon called a quasar. These glowing discs of matter are engaged in orbit around the black hole, much like a coil on an electric stove. As energy is applied, the “coil” heats up and unleashes bright radiation.

“A quasar accretion disc has a typical size of a few light-days, or around 100 billion kilometres across, but they lie billions of light-years away. This means their apparent size when viewed from Earth is so small that we will probably never have a telescope powerful enough to see their structure directly,” explains Jose Munoz, the lead scientist in this study.

Because of the diminutive size of the quasar, most of our understanding of how they work has been based on theory… but great minds have found a way to directly observe their effects. By employing the gravity of stars in an intervening galaxy like a scanning microscope, astronomers have been able to observe the quasar’s light as the stars move. While most of these types of features would be too small to see, the gravitation lensing effect ramps up the strength of the quasar’s light and allows study of the spectra as it cruises across the accretion disc.

This diagram shows how Hubble is able to observe a quasar, a glowing disc of matter around a distant black hole, even though the black hole would ordinarily be too far away to see clearly. Credit: NASA and ESA

By observing a group of gravitationally lensed quasars, the team was able to paint a vivid color portrait of the activity. They were able to pick out small changes between single images and spectral shifts over a period of time. What causes these kaleidoscopic variances? For the most part, it’s the different properties in the gases and dust of the lensing galaxies. Because they travel at different angles to the quasar’s light, scientists were even able to distinguish extinction laws at work.

But there was something special about one of the quasars. Says the Hubble Team, “There were clear signs that stars in the intervening galaxy were passing through the path of the light from the quasar. Just as the gravitational effect due to the whole intervening galaxy can bend and amplify the quasar’s light, so can that of the stars within the intervening galaxy subtly bend and amplify the light from different parts of the accretion disc as they pass through the path of the quasar’s light.”

By documenting these color changes, the team could build a profile of the accretion disc. Unlike our Earthly electric stove coil which glows red as it heats up, the accretion disc of a black hole turns blue as it gets closer to the event horizon. By measuring the blue hue, the team was able to measure the disc diameter and the various tints gave them an indicator of distances from its center. In this case, they found that the disc is between four and eleven light-days across (approximately 100 to 300 billion kilometres). Of course, these are only rough estimates, but considering just how far away we’re looking at such a small object gives these types of observations great potential for future studies… and even improvements on accuracy.

“This result is very relevant because it implies we are now able to obtain observational data on the structure of these systems, rather than relying on theory alone,” says Munoz. “Quasars’ physical properties are not yet well understood. This new ability to obtain observational measurements is therefore opening a new window to help understand the nature of these objects.”

Original Story Source: ESA/Hubble News Release. For Further Reading: A Study of Gravitational Lens Chromaticity With the Hubble Space Telescope.