Hot Gas is Being Vented Away from the Center of the Milky Way

X-Ray Data Revealing Jets at the Center of the Milky Way Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ. of Chicago/S.C. Mackey et al.; Radio: NRF/SARAO/MeerKAT; Image Processing: NASA/CXC/SAO/N. Wolk

Studying gas in the Universe is no easy task. We often look to ‘non-visible’ wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum such as X-rays. The Chandra X-Ray observatory has been observing a vent of hot gas blowing away from the centre of the Milky Way. Located about 26,000 light years away, the jet extends for hundreds of light years and is perpendicular to the disk of the Galaxy. It is now thought the gas has been forced away from the centre of the Milky Way because of a collision with cooler gas lying in its path and creating shockwaves. 

Continue reading “Hot Gas is Being Vented Away from the Center of the Milky Way”

Black Holes are Firing Beams of Particles, Changing Targets Over Time

Black holes seem to provide endless fascination to astronomers. This is at least partly due to the extreme physics that takes place in and around them, but sometimes, it might harken back to cultural touchpoints that made them interested in astronomy in the first place. That seems to be the case for the authors of a new paper on the movement of jets coming out of black holes. Dubbing them “Death Star” black holes, researchers used data from the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) and the Chandra X-ray Observatory to look at where these black holes fired jets of superheated particles. And over time the found they did something the fiction Death Star could also do – move.

Continue reading “Black Holes are Firing Beams of Particles, Changing Targets Over Time”

It's Confirmed. M87's Black Hole is Actually Spinning

Schematic representation of the tilted accretion disk model. Credit: Cui et al. (2023), Intouchable Lab@Openverse and Zhejiang Lab

Fifty-five million light-years away, in the galaxy known as M87, lies a supermassive black hole. It is a powerfully active black hole with a mass of 6.5 billion Suns, and in 2019 it was the first black hole to be imaged directly. The radio image captured by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) shows a halo of ambient light warped by the black hole’s gravity and directed our way. On one side of the halo, the light is brighter, which according to general relativity is due to the rotation or spin of the black hole. It was the first direct confirmation that the black hole rotates. A new study published in Nature has given us more rotational evidence.

Continue reading “It's Confirmed. M87's Black Hole is Actually Spinning”

Advanced Life Should Have Already Peaked Billions of Years Ago

The Drake Equation, a mathematical formula for the probability of finding life or advanced civilizations in the universe. Credit: University of Rochester

Did humanity miss the party? Are SETI, the Drake Equation, and the Fermi Paradox all just artifacts of our ignorance about Advanced Life in the Universe? And if we are wrong, how would we know?

A new study focusing on black holes and their powerful effect on star formation suggests that we, as advanced life, might be relics from a bygone age in the Universe.

Continue reading “Advanced Life Should Have Already Peaked Billions of Years Ago”

A Star Came too Close to a Black Hole. It Didn’t End Well

A disk of hot gas swirls around a black hole in this illustration. The stream of gas stretching to the right is what remains of a star that was pulled apart by the black hole. A cloud of hot plasma (gas atoms with their electrons stripped away) above the black hole is known as a corona. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Black holes are confounding objects that stretch physics to its limits. The most massive ones lurk in the centers of large galaxies like ours. They dominate the galactic center, and when a star gets too close, the black hole’s powerful gravitational force tears the star apart as they feed on it. Not even the most massive stars can resist.

But supermassive black holes (SMBHs) didn’t start out that massive. They attained their gargantuan mass by accreting material over vast spans of time and by merging with other black holes.

There are large voids in our understanding of how SMBHs grow and evolve, and one way astrophysicists fill those voids is by watching black holes as they consume stars.

Continue reading “A Star Came too Close to a Black Hole. It Didn’t End Well”

A Black Hole has been Burping for 100 Million Years

Artist view of an active supermassive black hole. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

Black holes are gluttonous behemoths that lurk in the center of galaxies. Almost everybody knows that nothing can escape them, not even light. So when anything made of simple matter gets too close, whether a planet, a star or a gas cloud, it’s doomed.

But the black hole doesn’t eat it at once. It plays with its food like a fussy kid. Sometimes, it spews out light.

When the black hole is not only at the center of a galaxy but the center of a cluster of galaxies, these burps and jets carve massive cavities out of the hot gas at the center of the cluster called radio bubbles.

Continue reading “A Black Hole has been Burping for 100 Million Years”

M87’s Black Hole is Firing Out Jets that Travel 99% the Speed of Light

Using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, astronomers have seen that the famous giant black hole in Messier 87 is propelling particles at speeds greater than 99% of the speed of light. Image Credit: NASA/CXC/SAO/B. Snios et al.

Can black holes be famous? If they can, then the one at the heart of the M87 galaxy qualifies. And this famous black hole is emitting jets of material that travel at near the speed of light.

Continue reading “M87’s Black Hole is Firing Out Jets that Travel 99% the Speed of Light”

What are Active Galactic Nuclei?

An artist's impression of the accretion disc around the supermassive black hole that powers an active galaxy. Astronomers want to know if the energy radiated from a black hole is caused by jets of material shooting away from the hole, or by the accretion disk of swirling material near the hole. Credit: NASA/Dana Berry, SkyWorks Digital
An artist's impression of the accretion disc around the supermassive black hole that powers an active galaxy. Astronomers want to know if the energy radiated from a black hole is caused by jets of material shooting away from the hole, or by the accretion disk of swirling material near the hole. Credit: NASA/Dana Berry, SkyWorks Digital

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.


Astronomers Catch A Quasar Shutting Off

This artist's rending shows "before" and "after" images of a changing look quasar. Credit: Yale University.

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.

An example of an atomic spectrum, showing emission lines at particular wavelengths.
A simple example of an atomic spectrum, showing emission lines at particular wavelengths. Broad humps correspond to brighter emission lines, while lines that arise from narrow, lower-intensity emissions appear dimmer. Credit: NASA

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.

Supermassive Black Hole Blasting Molecular Hydrogen Solves Outstanding Mystery

An artist's conception of a supermassive black hole's jets. Credit: NASA / Dana Berry / SkyWorks Digital
An artist's conception of a supermassive black hole's jets. Credit: NASA / Dana Berry / SkyWorks Digital

The supermassive black holes in the cores of most massive galaxies wreak havoc on their immediate surroundings. During their most active phases — when they ignite as luminous quasars — they launch extremely powerful and high-velocity outflows of gas.

These outflows can sweep up and heat material, playing a pivotal role in the formation and evolution of massive galaxies. Not only have astronomers observed them across the visible Universe, they also play a key ingredient in theoretical models.

But the physical nature of the outflows themselves has been a longstanding mystery. What physical mechanism causes gas to reach such high speeds, and in some cases be expelled from the galaxy?

A new study provides the first direct evidence that these outflows are accelerated by energetic jets produced by the supermassive black hole.

Using the Very Large Telescope in Chile, a team of astronomers led by Clive Tadhunter from Sheffield University, observed the nearby active galaxy IC 5063. At locations in the galaxy where its jets are impacting regions of dense gas, the gas is moving at extraordinary speeds of over 600,000 miles per hour.

“Much of the gas in the outflows is in the form of molecular hydrogen, which is fragile in the sense that it is destroyed at relatively low energies,” said Tadhunter in a press release. “I find it extraordinary that the molecular gas can survive being accelerated by jets of highly energetic particles moving at close to the speed of light.

As the jets travel through the galactic matter, they disrupt the surrounding gas and generate shock waves. These shock waves not only accelerate the gas, but also heat it. The team estimates the shock waves heat the gas to temperatures high enough to ionize the gas and dissociate the molecules. Molecular hydrogen is only formed in the significantly cooler post-shock gas.

“We suspected that the molecules must have been able to reform after the gas had been completely upset by the interaction with a fast plasma jet,” said Raffaella Morganti from the Kapteyn Institute Groningen University. “Our direct observations of the phenomenon have confirmed that this extreme situation can indeed occur. Now we need to work at describing the exact physics of the interaction.”

In interstellar space, molecular hydrogen forms on the surface of dust grains. But in this scenario, the dust is likely to have been destroyed in the intense shock waves. While it is possible for molecular hydrogen to form without the aid of dust grains (as seen in the early Universe) the exact mechanism in this case is still unknown.

The research helps answer a longstanding question — providing the first direct evidence that jets accelerate the molecular outflows seen in active galaxies — and asks new ones.

The results were published in Nature and are available online.