Astronomers have spotted three supermassive black holes (SMBHs) at the center of three colliding galaxies a billion light years away from Earth. That alone is unusual, but the three black holes are also glowing in x-ray emissions. This is evidence that all three are also active galactic nuclei (AGN,) gobbling up material and flaring brightly.
This discovery may shed some light on the “final parsec problem,” a long-standing issue in astrophysics and black hole mergers.
Galaxy mergers are not particularly rare, but they are important events. Not only for the galaxies involved, but for scientists trying to piece together how galaxies evolve. Now, astronomers using ALMA have found the earliest example yet of merging galaxies.
On a clear night, you can make out the band of the Milky Way in the night sky. For millennia, astronomers looked upon it in awe, slowly coming to the realization that our Sun was merely one of billions of stars in the galaxy. Over time, as our instruments and methods improved, we came to realize that the Milky Way itself was merely one of billions of galaxies that make up the Universe.
Thanks to the discovery of Relativity and the speed of light, we have also come to understand that when we look through space, we are also looking back in time. By seeing an object 1 billion light-years away, we are also seeing how that object looked 1 billion years ago. This “time machine” effect has allowed astronomers to study how galaxies came to be (i.e. galactic evolution).
The process in which galaxies form and evolve is characterized by steady growth over time, which began shortly after the Big Bang. This process, and the eventual fate of galaxies, remain the subject of intense fascination, and is still fraught with its share of mysteries.
The current scientific consensus is that all matter in the Universe was created roughly 13.8 billion years ago during an event known as the Big Bang. At this time, all matter was compacted into a very small ball with infinite density and intense heat called a Singularity. Suddenly, the Singularity began expanding, and the Universe as we know it began.
After rapidly expanding and cooling, all matter was almost uniform in distribution. Over the course of the several billion years that followed, the slightly denser regions of the Universe began to become gravitationally attracted to each other. They therefore grew even denser, forming gas clouds and large clumps of matter.
These clumps became primordial galaxies, as the clouds of hydrogen gas within the proto-galaxies underwent gravitational collapse to become the first stars. Some of these early objects were small, and became tiny dwarf galaxies, while others were much larger and became the familiar spiral shapes, like our own Milky Way.
Once formed, these galaxies evolved together in larger galactic structures called groups, clusters and superclusters. Over time, galaxies were attracted to one another by the force of their gravity, and collided together in a series of mergers. The outcome of these mergers depends on the mass of the galaxies in the collision.
Small galaxies are torn apart by larger galaxies and added to the mass of larger galaxies. Our own Milky Way recently devoured a few dwarf galaxies, turning them into streams of stars that orbit the galactic core. But when large galaxies of similar size come together, they become giant elliptical galaxies.
When this happens, the delicate spiral structure is lost, and the merged galaxies become large and elliptical. Elliptical galaxies are some of the largest galaxies ever observed. Another consequence of these mergers is that the supermassive black holes (SMBH) at their centers become even larger.
Not all mergers will result in elliptical galaxies, mind you. But all mergers result in a change in the structure of the merged galaxies. For example, it is believed that the Milky Way is experiencing a minor merger event with the nearby Magellanic Clouds; and in recent years, it has been determined that the Canis Major dwarf galaxy has merged with our own.
While mergers are seen as violent events, actual collisions are not expected to happen between star systems, given the vast distances between stars. However, mergers can result in gravitational shock waves, which are capable of triggering the formation of new stars. This is what is predicted to happen when our own Milky Way galaxy merges with the Andromeda galaxy in about 4 billion years time.
Ultimately, galaxies cease forming stars once they deplete their supply of cold gas and dust. As the supply runs out, star forming slows over the course of billions of years until it ceases entirely. However, ongoing mergers will ensure that fresh stars, gas and dust are deposited in older galaxies, thus prolonging their lives.
At present, it is believed that our galaxy has used up most of its hydrogen, and star formation will slow down until the supply is depleted. Stars like our Sun can only last for 10 billion years or so; but the smallest, coolest red dwarfs can last for a few trillion years. However, thanks to the presence of dwarf galaxies and our impending merger with Andromeda, our galaxy could exist even longer.
However, all galaxies in this vicinity of the Universe will eventually become gravitationally bound to each other and merge into a giant elliptical galaxy. Astronomers have seen examples of these sorts of “fossil galaxies”, a good of which is Messier 49 – a supermassive elliptical galaxy.
These galaxies have used up all their reserves of star forming gas, and all that’s left are the longer lasting stars. Eventually, over vast lengths of time, those stars will wink out one after the other, until the whole thing is the background temperature of the Universe.
After our galaxy merges with Andromeda, and goes on to merge with all other nearby galaxies in the local group, we can expect that it too will undergo a similar fate. And so, galaxy evolution has been occurring over billions of years, and it will continue to happen for the foreseeable future.
The Anglo-Australian Telescope in New South Wales has been watching how lazy giant galaxies gain size – and it isn’t because they create their own stars. In a research project known as the Galaxy And Mass Assembly (GAMA) survey, a group of Australian scientists led by Professor Simon Driver at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) have found the Universe’s most massive galaxies prefer “eating” their neighbors.
According to findings published in the journal “Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society”, astronomers studied more than 22,000 individual galaxies to see how they grew. Apparently smaller galaxies are exceptional star producers, forming their stellar members from their own gases. However, larger galaxies are lazy. They aren’t very good at stellar creation. These massive monsters rarely produce new stars on their own. So how do they grow? They cannibalize their companions. Dr. Aaron Robotham, who is based at the University of Western Australia node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), explains that smaller ‘dwarf’ galaxies were being consumed by their heavyweight peers.
“All galaxies start off small and grow by collecting gas and quite efficiently turning it into stars,” he said. “Then every now and then they get completely cannibalized by some much larger galaxy.”
So how does our home galaxy stack up to these findings? Dr. Robotham, who led the research, said the Milky Way is at a tipping point and is expected to now grow mainly by eating smaller galaxies, rather than by collecting gas.
“The Milky Way hasn’t merged with another large galaxy for a long time but you can still see remnants of all the old galaxies we’ve cannibalized,” he said. “We’re also going to eat two nearby dwarf galaxies, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, in about four billion years.” Robotham also added the Milky Way wouldn’t escape unscathed. Eventually, in about five billion years, we’ll encounter the nearby Andromeda Galaxy and the tables will be turned. “Technically, Andromeda will eat us because it’s the more massive one,” he said.
This simulation shows what will happen when the Milky Way and Andromeda get closer together and then collide, and then finally come together once more to merge into an even bigger galaxy.
Simulation Credit: Prof Chris Power (ICRAR-UWA), Dr Alex Hobbs (ETH Zurich), Prof Justin Reid (University of Surrey), Dr Dave Cole (University of Central Lancashire) and the Theoretical Astrophysics Group at the University of Leicester. Video Production Credit: Pete Wheeler, ICRAR.
What exactly is going on here? Is it a case of mutual attraction? According to Dr. Robotham when galaxies grow, they acquire a heavy-duty gravitational field allowing them to suck in neighboring galaxies with ease. But why do they stop producing their own stars? Is it because they have exhausted their fuel? Robotham said star formation slow downs in really massive galaxies might be “because of extreme feedback events in a very bright region at the center of a galaxy known as an active galactic nucleus.”
“The topic is much debated, but a popular mechanism is where the active galactic nucleus basically cooks the gas and prevents it from cooling down to form stars,” Dr. Robotham said.
Will the entire Universe one day become just a single, large galaxy? In reality, gravity may very well cause galaxies groups and clusters to congeal into a limited number of super-giant galaxies, but that will take many billions of years to occur.
“If you waited a really, really, really long time that would eventually happen, but by really long I mean many times the age of the Universe so far,” Dr. Robotham said.
While the GAMA survey findings didn’t take billions of years, it didn’t happen overnight either. It took seven years and more than 90 scientists to complete – and it wasn’t a single revelation. From this work there have been over 60 publications and there are still another 180 in progress!
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.”
Its name is SPECA – a Spiral-host Episodic radio galaxy tracing Cluster Accretion. That’s certainly a mouthful of words for this unusual galaxy, but there’s a lot more going on here than just its name. “This is probably the most exotic galaxy with a black hole, ever seen. It is like a ‘missing-link’ between present day and past galaxies. It has the potential to teach us new lessons about how galaxies and clusters of galaxies formed in the early Universe,” said Ananda Hota, of the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics (ASIAA), in Taiwan and who discovered this exotic galaxy.
Located about 1.7 billion light-years from Earth, Speca is a radio source that contains a central supermassive black hole. As we have learned, galaxies of this type produce relativistic “jets” which are responsible for being bright at the radio frequencies, but that’s not all they create. While radio galaxies are generally elliptical, Speca is a spiral – reason behind is really unclear. As the relativistic jets surge with time, they create lobes of sub-atomic material at the outer edges which fan out as the material slows down… and Speca is one of only two galaxies so far discovered to show this type of recurrent jet activity. Normally it occurs once – and rarely twice – but here it has happened three times! We are looking at a unique opportunity to unravel the mysteries of the beginning phase of a black hole jet.
“Both elliptical and spiral galaxies have black holes, but Speca and another galaxy have been seen to produce large jets. It is also one of only two galaxies to show that such activity occurred in three separate episodes.” explains Sandeep Sirothia of NCRA-TIFR. “The reason behind this on-off activity of the black hole to produce jets is unknown. Such activities have not been reported earlier in spiral galaxies, which makes this new galaxy unique. It will help us learn new theories or change existing ones. We are now following the object and trying to analyse the activities.”
Dr. Hota and an international team of scientists reached their first conclusions while studying combined data from the visible-light Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) and the FIRST survey done with the Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope. Here they discovered an unusually high rate of star formation where there should be none and they then confirmed their findings with ultraviolet data from NASA’s GALEX space telescope. Then the team dug even deeper with radio information obtained from the NRAO VLA Sky Survey (NVSS). At several hundred million years old, these outer lobes should be beyond their reproductive years… Yet, that wasn’t all. GMRT images displayed yet another, tiny lobe located just outside the stars at the edge of Speca in plasma that is just a few million years old.
“We think these old, relic lobes have been ‘re-lighted’ by shock waves from rapidly-moving material falling into the cluster of galaxies as the cluster continues to accrete matter,” said Ananda. “All these phenomena combined in one galaxy make Speca and its neighbours a valuable laboratory for studying how galaxies and clusters evolved billions of years ago.”
As you watch the above galaxy merger simulation created by Tiziana Di Matteo, Volker Springel, and Lars Hernquist, you are taking part in a visualization of two galaxies combining which both have central supermassive black holes and the gas distribution only. As they merge, you time travel over two billion years where the brightest hues indicate density while color denotes temperature. Such explosive process for the loss of gas is needed to understand how two colliding star-forming spiral galaxies can create an elliptical galaxy… a galaxy left with no fuel for future star formation. Outflow from the supernovae and central monster blackholes are the prime drivers of this galaxy evolution.
“Similarly, superfast jets from black holes are supposed to remove a large fraction of gas from a galaxy and stop further star formation. If the galaxy is gas-rich in the central region, and as the jet direction changes with time, it can have an adverse effect on the star formation history of a galaxy. Speca may have once been part of such a scenario. Where multiple jets have kicked out spiral arms from the galaxy. To understand such a process Dr Hota’s team has recently investigated NGC 3801 which has very young jet in very early-phase of hitting the host galaxy. Dust/PAH, HI and CO emission shows an extremely warped gas disk. HST data clearly showa outflow of heated-gas. This gas loss, as visualised in the video, has possibly caused the decline of star formation. However, the biggest blow from the monster’s jets are about to give the knock-down punch the galaxy.
“It seems, we observe this galaxy at a rare stage of its evolutionary sequence where post-merger star formation has already declined and new powerful jet feedback is about to affect the gaseous star forming outer disk within the next 10 million years to further transform it into a red-and-dead early-type galaxy.” Dr. Hota says.
The causes behind why present day radio galaxies do not contain a young star forming disks are not clear. Speca and NGC 3801 are ideal laboratories to understand black hole galaxy co-evolution processes.
Score another first for NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope! Along with observations taken with the Swift X-ray telescope, a team of astronomers have identified a young stellar cluster of stars pointing the way towards the first verified intermediate mass black hole. This grouping of stars provides significant indication that black holes of this type may have been at the center of a now shredded dwarf galaxy – a finding which increases our knowledge of galaxy evolution.
“For the first time, we have evidence on the environment, and thus the origin, of this middle-weight black hole,” said Mathieu Servillat, a member of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics research team.
Designated as ESO 243-49 HLX-1, this incredible intermediate mass black hole was discovered in 2009 by Sean Farrell, of the Sydney Institute for Astronomy in Australia, using the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton X-ray space telescope. Hyper-Luminous X-ray Source 1 is a 20,000 solar mass beauty which resides at the edge of galaxy ESO 243-49 some 290 million light years away. However, the Newton’s findings weren’t the only contribution – HLX-1 was also verified with NASA’s Swift observatory in X-ray and Hubble in near-infrared, optical, and ultraviolet wavelengths. What stands out is the presence of a cluster of young stars encircling the black hole and stretching out across about 250 light years of space. While the stars themselves are too far away to be resolved, their magnitude and spectra match with other young clusters seen in similar galaxies.
Just what clued the team to the presence of a star cluster? In this case their instruments revealed the blue spectrum of hot gases being emitted from the accretion disk located at the periphery of the black hole… and there was more. They also noted the presence of red light spawned by cooler gases which may indicate the presences of stars. Time to match up the findings against computer modeling.
“What we can definitely say with our Hubble data is that we require both emission from an accretion disk and emission from a stellar population to explain the colors we see.” said Farrell.
Why is the presence of a young star cluster unusual? According to what we know so far, they just don’t occur outside a flattened disk such as HLX-1. This finding may indicate the intermediate mass black hole may have once been at the heart of a dwarf galaxy engaged in a merger event. The dwarf galaxy’s stars were stripped away, but not its capabilities to form new. During the interaction, the gas around the black hole was compressed and star formation began again… but how long ago?
“The age of the population cannot be uniquely constrained, with both very young and very old stellar populations allowed. However, the very old solution requires excessively high levels of disc reprocessing and an extremely small disc, leading us to favour the young solution with an age of ~13 Myr.” says the team. “In addition, the presence of dust lanes and the lack of any nuclear activity from X-ray observations of the host galaxy lead us to propose that a gas-rich minor merger may have taken place less than ~200 Myr ago. Such a merger event would explain the presence of the intermediate mass black hole and support a young stellar population.”
Discoveries such as HLX-1 will help astronomers further understand how supermassive black holes are formed. Current conjecture is that intermediate mass black holes may migrate together to form their larger counterparts. Studying the trajectory of this new find may provide valuable information… even if it is unknown at this point. HLX-1 may be drawn into a merger event and it may just end up orbiting ESO 243-49. Regardless of what happens, chances are it will fade away in X-ray as it exhausts its gas supply.
“This black hole is unique in that it’s the only intermediate-mass black hole we’ve found so far. Its rarity suggests that these black holes are only visible for a short time,” said Servillat.
Big galaxies… Little galaxies… But how often do they meet? Thanks to information from some of the latest Hubble surveys, astronomers have been able to more closely estimate galaxy collision rates than ever before. Apparently those that have happened within the last eight to nine billion years have occurred somewhere in-between previous estimates.
When it comes to galaxy evolution, the collision rate is an indicator of how individual galaxies accumulated mass over time. While it’s pretty much a standard measurement, there’s a large margin with no information of how often it might have occurred in the very distant past. By taking a look at in deep-field surveys made by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers were able to get a general look – one that showed a merger rate of anywhere from 5 percent to 25 percent of those studied.
The science team, led by Jennifer Lotz of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, took a close look at galaxy interactions spaced over vast distances. This allowed the group to essentially study mergers which occurred at different times. What they found was larger galaxies had a merger rate of once every nine billion years, while smaller ones crashed up more often. When taking a look a dwarf galaxies compared to massive ones, the team found it happened three times more often than the rate for large galaxies.
“Having an accurate value for the merger rate is critical because galactic collisions may be a key process that drives galaxy assembly, rapid star formation at early times, and the accretion of gas onto central supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies,” Lotz explains.
While there were past studies of galaxy mergers done with Hubble information, astronomers used a different method and came up with different results. “These different techniques probe mergers at different ‘snapshots’ in time along the merger process,” Lotz says. “It is a little bit like trying to count car crashes by taking snapshots. If you look for cars on a collision course, you will only see a few of them. If you count up the number of wrecked cars you see afterwards, you will see many more. Studies that looked for close pairs of galaxies that appeared ready to collide gave much lower numbers of mergers than those that searched for galaxies with disturbed shapes, evidence that they’re in smashups.”
To help determine how often the merger rate occurred with time, Lotz and her team had to know how long an encountered galaxy would appear disrupted. In order to get a good working model, the team used computer simulations and then mapped them compared to Hubble images of galaxy interactions. While this effort took a great deal of time, the team did their best to create every possible scenario – from a pair of galaxies with equal mass to disparate ones. They also took into account orbits, collisional events and even orientation. Of these studies, 57 different situations and 10 viewing angles were accounted for. “Viewing the simulations was akin to watching a slow-motion car crash,” Lotz says. These computer created scenarios followed the galaxies for 2 billion to 3 billion years, starting at the merger beginning and ending a billion years later when completed. “Our simulations offer a realistic picture of mergers between galaxies,” explains Lotz.
While it was easy enough to see what happens with a giant galaxy, it was a bit more difficult to observe what happens with diminutive ones. Observing a dwarf merger is far more difficult simply because they are so much more dim – but plentiful. “Dwarf galaxies are the most common galaxy in the universe,” Lotz says. “They may have contributed to the buildup of large galaxies. In fact, our own Milky Way galaxy had several such mergers with small galaxies in its recent past, which helped to build up the outer regions of its halo. This study provides the first quantitative understanding of how the number of galaxies disturbed by these minor mergers changed with time.”
However, studies of this type just don’t happen with a handful of photos. Lotz and the team had to compare the simulations with literally thousands of galaxy images taken from some of Hubble’s largest surveys, including the All-Wavelength Extended Groth Strip International Survey (AEGIS), the Cosmological Evolution Survey (COSMOS), and the Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey (GOODS), as well as mergers identified by the DEEP2 survey with the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. At the beginning they found a wide variety of merger rates, but ended up with about a thousand merger candidates. “When we applied what we learned from the simulations to the Hubble surveys in our study, we derived much more consistent results,” Lotz says.
What’s next for Lotz and her team? It’s time to take a look at galaxy interactions that happened about 11 billion years ago. Their goal is to check out when star formation across the Universe reached its greatest as compared to the merger rate. Perhaps there might be a correlation between encounters and rapid star birth!