When Two Supermassive Black Holes Merge, It’s a Galactic Train Wreck

Most large galaxies harbor central supermassive black holes with masses equivalent to millions, or even billions, of Suns. Some, like the one in the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, lie quiet. Others, known as quasars, chow down on so much gas they outshine their host galaxies and are even visible across the Universe.

Although their brilliant light varies across all wavelengths, it does so randomly — there’s no regularity in the peaks and dips of brightness. Now Matthew Graham from Caltech and his colleagues have found an exception to the rule.

Quasar PG 1302-102 shows an unusual repeating light signature that looks like a sinusoidal curve. Astronomers think hidden behind the light are two supermassive black holes in the final phases of a merger — something theoretically predicted but never before seen. If the theory holds, astronomers might be able to witness two black holes en route to a collision of incredible scale.

The light curve combines data from two CRTS telescopes (CSS and MLS) with historical data from the LINEAR and ASAS surveys, and the literature15, 16 (see Methods for details). The error bars represent one standard deviation errors on the photometry values. The red dashed line indicates a sinusoid with period 1,884 days and amplitude 0.14 mag. The uncertainty in the measured period is 88 days. Note that this does not reflect the expected shape of the periodic waveform, which will depend on the physical properties of the system. MJD, modified Julian day. Image Credit: Graham et al.
The light curve combines data from two CRTS telescopes (CSS and MLS) with historical data from the LINEAR and ASAS surveys. Image Credit: Graham et al.

Graham and his colleagues discovered the unusual quasar on a whim. They were aiming to study quasar variability using the Catalina Real-Time Transient Survey (CRTS), which uses three ground-based telescopes to monitor some 500 million objects strewn across 80 percent of the sky, when 20 or so periodic sources popped up.

Of those 20 periodic quasars, PG 1302-102 was the most promising. It had a strong signal that appeared to repeat every five years or so. But what causes the repeating signal?

The black holes that power quasars do not emit light. Instead the light originates from the hot accretion disk that feeds the black hole. Orbiting clouds of gas, which are heated and ionized by the disk, also contribute in the form of visible emission lines.

“When you look at the emission lines in a spectrum from an object, what you’re really seeing is information about speed — whether something is moving toward you or away from you and how fast. It’s the Doppler effect,” said study coauthor Eilat Glikman from Middlebury College in Vermont, in a news release. “With quasars, you typically have one emission line, and that line is a symmetric curve. But with this quasar, it was necessary to add a second emission line with a slightly different speed than the first one in order to fit the data. That suggests something else, such as a second black hole, is perturbing this system.”

So a tight supermassive black hole binary is the most likely explanation for this oddly periodic quasar.

“Until now, the only known examples of supermassive black holes on their way to a merger have been separated by tens or hundreds of thousands of light years,” said study coauthor Daniel Stern from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “At such vast distances, it would take many millions, or even billions, of years for a collision and merger to occur. In contrast, the black holes in PG 1302-102 are, at most, a few hundredths of a light year apart and could merge in about a million years or less.”

But astronomers remain unsure about what physical mechanism is responsible for the quasar’s repeating light signal. It’s possible that one quasar is funneling material from its accretion disk into jets, which are rotating like beams from a lighthouse. Or perhaps a portion of the accretion disk itself is thicker than the rest, causing light to be blocked at certain spots in its orbit. Or maybe the accretion disk is dumping material onto the black hole in a regular fashion, causing periodic bursts of energy.

“Even though there are a number of viable physical mechanisms behind the periodicity we’re seeing — either the precessing jet, warped accretion disk or periodic dumping — these are all still fundamentally caused by a close binary system,” said Graham.

Astronomers still don’t have a good handle on what happens in the final few light-years of a black hole merger. And of course these two black holes still won’t collide for thousands to millions of years. Even watching for the period to shorten as they spiral inward would dwarf human timescales. But the discovery of a system so late in the game proves promising for future work.

The results have been published in Nature.

Distant Galaxies Reveal 3D Cosmic Web for the First Time

On the largest scales, networks of gaseous filaments span hundreds of millions of light-years, connecting massive galaxy clusters. But this gas is so rarified, it’s impossible to see directly.

For years, astronomers have used quasars — brilliant galactic centers fueled by supermassive black holes rapidly accreting material — to map the otherwise invisible matter.

But now, for the first time, a team of astronomers led by Khee-Gan Lee, a post-doc at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, has managed to create a three-dimensional map of the large-scale structure of the Universe using distant galaxies. And the advantages are numerous.

The science has always gone a little something like this: as the bright light from a distant quasar travels toward Earth, it encounters the intervening clouds of hydrogen gas and is partially absorbed. This leaves dark absorption lines in the quasar’s spectrum.

Artist's impression illustrating the technique of Lyman-alpha tomography: as light from distant background galaxies (yellow arrows) travels through the Universe towards Earth, hydrogen gas in the foreground leaves a characteristic imprint ("absorption signature"). From this imprint, astronomers can reconstruct which clouds the light has encountered as it traverses the "cosmic web" of dark matter and gas that accounts for the biggest structures in our universe. By observing a number of background galaxies in a small patch of the sky, astronomers were able to create a 3D map of the cosmic web using a technique similar to medical computer tomography (CT) scans. The coloring represents the density of hydrogen gas tracing the cosmic web, with brighter colors representing higher density. The rendition of the cosmic web in this image is based on a supercomputer simulation of cosmic structure formation. Credit: Khee-Gan Lee (MPIA) and Casey Stark (UC Berkeley)
Artist’s impression illustrating how a distant quasar’s or galaxy’s spectrum becomes clouded with absorption lines from intervening hydrogen gas. Credit: Khee-Gan Lee (MPIA) and Casey Stark (UC Berkeley)

If the Universe were static, the dark absorption lines would always be located at the same spot (121 nanometers for the so-called Lyman-alpha line) in the quasar’s spectrum. But because the Universe is expanding, the distant quasar is flying away from the Earth at a rapid speed. This stretches the quasar’s light, such that each intervening hydrogen gas cloud imprints its absorption signature on a different region of the quasar’s spectrum, leaving a forest of lines.

Therefore detailed measurements of multiple quasars’ spectra close together can actually reveal the three-dimensional nature of the intervening hydrogen clouds. But galaxies are nearly 100 times more numerous than quasars. So in theory they should provide a much more detailed map.

The only problem is that galaxies are also about 15 times fainter than quasars. So astronomers thought they were simply not bright enough to see well in the distant universe. But Lee carried out calculations that suggested otherwise.

“I was surprised to find that existing large telescopes should already be able to collect sufficient light from these faint galaxies to map the foreground absorption, albeit at a lower resolution than would be feasible with future telescopes,” said Lee in a news release. “Still, this would provide an unprecedented view of the cosmic web which has never been mapped at such vast distances.”

Lee and his colleagues used the 10-meter Keck I telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii to take a look a closer look at the distant galaxies and the forest of hydrogen absorption embedded in their spectra. But even the weather in Hawaii can turn ugly.

“We were pretty disappointed as the weather was terrible and we only managed to collect a few hours of good data,” said coauthor Joseph Hennawi, also from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy. “But judging by the data quality as it came off the telescope, it was already clear to me that the experiment was going to work.”

The team was only able to collect data for four hours. But it was still unprecedented. They looked at 24 distant galaxies, which provided sufficient coverage of a small patch of the sky and allowed them to combine the information into a three-dimensional map.

The map reveals the large-scale structure of the Universe when it was only a quarter of its current age. But the team hopes to soon parse the map for more information about the structure’s function — following the flows of cosmic gas as it funneled away from voids and onto distant galaxies. It will provide a unique historical record on how the galaxy clusters and voids grew from inhomogeneities in the Big Bang.

The results have been published in the Astrophysical Journal and are available online.

What Lit up the Universe? Astronomers May be on the Brink of an Answer

Most scientists can see, hear, smell, touch or even taste their research. But astronomers can only study light — photons traveling billions of light-years across the cosmos before getting scooped up by an array of radio dishes or a single parabolic mirror orbiting the Earth.

Luckily the universe is overflowing with photons across a spectrum of energies and wavelengths. But astronomers don’t fully understand where most of the light, especially in the early universe, originates.

Now, new simulations hope to uncover the origin of the ultraviolet light that bathes — and shapes — the early cosmos.

“Which produces more light? A country’s biggest cities or its many tiny towns?” asked lead author Andrew Pontzen in a press release. “Cities are brighter, but towns are far more numerous. Understanding the balance would tell you something about the organization of the country. We’re posing a similar question about the universe: does ultraviolet light come from numerous but faint galaxies, or from a smaller number of quasars?”

Answering this question will give us a valuable insight into the way the universe built its galaxies over time. It will also help astronomers calibrate their measurements of dark energy, the mysterious agent that is somehow accelerating the universe’s expansion.

The problem is that most of intergalactic space is impossible to see directly. But quasars — brilliant galactic centers fueled by black holes rapidly accreting material — shine brightly and illuminate otherwise invisible matter. Any intervening gas will absorb the quasar’s light and leave dark lines in the arriving spectrum.

“Because they can be seen at such great distances, quasars are a useful probe for finding out the properties of the universe,” said Pontzen. “Distant quasars can be used as a backlight, and the properties of the gas between them and us are imprinted on the light.

Multiple clouds of intervening hydrogen gas leave a “forest” of hydrogen absorption lines in the quasar’s spectrum. But, crucially, not all gas in the universe contributes to these dark lines. When hydrogen is bombarded by ultraviolet light, it becomes ionized — the electron separates from the proton — which renders it transparent.

So the pattern of absorption lines visible in a quasar’s spectrum map out the location of neutral and ionized regions in between the quasar and the Earth.

This pattern will tell astronomers the main contributing light source in the early universe. Quasars are fairly limited in number but individually extremely bright. If they caused most of the radiation, the pattern will be far from uniform, with some areas nearly transparent and others strongly opaque. But if galaxies, which are far more numerous but much dimmer, caused most of the radiation, the pattern will be very uniform, with evenly spaced absorption lines.

Current samples of quasars aren’t quite big enough for a robust analysis of the subtle differences between the two scenarios. But Pontzen and colleagues show that a number of new surveys should shed light on the question.

The team is hopeful the DESI (Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument) survey, which will look at about a million distant quasars in order to better understand dark energy, will also show the distribution of intervening gas.

“It’s amazing how little is known about the objects that bathed the universe in ultraviolet radiation while galaxies assembled into their present form,” said coauthor Hiranya Peiris. “This technique gives us a novel handle on the intergalactic environment during this critical time in the Universe’s history.”

The paper was published Aug. 27 in the Astrophysical Journal Letters and is available online.

How did Supermassive Black Holes Grow so Massive so Quickly?

Black holes one billion times the Sun’s mass or more lie at the heart of many galaxies, driving their evolution. Although common today, evidence of supermassive black holes existing since the infancy of the Universe, one billion years or so after the Big Bang, has puzzled astronomers for years.

How could these giants have grown so massive in the relatively short amount of time they had to form? A new study led by Tal Alexander from the Weizmann Institute of Science and Priyamvada Natarajn from Yale University, may provide a solution.

Black holes are often mistaken to be monstrous creatures that suck in dust and gas at an enormous rate. But this couldn’t be further from the truth (in fact the words “suck” and “black hole” in the same sentence makes me cringe). Although they typically accumulate bright accretion disks — swirling disks of gas and dust that make them visible across the observable Universe — these very disks actually limit the speed of growth.

First, as matter in an accretion disk gets close to the black hole, traffic jams occur that slow down any other infalling material. Second, as matter collides within these traffic jams, it heats up, generating energy radiation that actually drives gas and dust away from the black hole.

A star or a gas stream can actually be on a stable orbit around the black hole, much as a planet orbits around a star. So it is quite a challenge for astronomers to think of ways that would make a black hole grow to supermassive proportions.

Luckily, Alexander and Natarajan may have found a way to do this: by placing the black hole within a cluster of thousands of stars, they’re able to operate without the restrictions of an accretion disk.

Black holes are generally thought to form when massive stars, weighing tens of solar masses, explode after their nuclear fuel is spent. Without the nuclear furnace at its core pushing against gravity, the star collapses. While the inner layers fall inward to form a black hole of only about 10 solar masses, the outer layers fall faster, hitting the inner layers, and rebounding in a huge supernova explosion. At least that’s the simple version.

 A small black hole gains mass: Dense cold gas (green) flows toward the center of a stellar cluster (red cross in blue circle) with stars (yellow); the erratic path of the black hole through the gas (black line) is randomized by the surrounding stars Prof. Tal Alexander’s research is supported by the European Research Council.
The erratic path of the black hole through the gas (black line) is randomized by the surrounding stars (yellow circles). Meanwhile, dense cold gas (green arrows) flows toward the center of the cluster (red cross). Credit: Weizmann Institute of Science.

The team began with a model of a black hole, created from this stellar blast, embedded within a cluster of thousands of stars. A continuous flow of dense, cold, opaque gas fell into the black hole. But here’s the trick: the gravitational pull of many nearby stars caused it to zigzag randomly, preventing it from forming an accretion disk.

Without an accretion disk, not only is matter more able to fall into the black hole from all sides, but it isn’t slowed down in the accretion disk itself.

All in all, the model suggests that a black hole 10 times the mass of the Sun could grow to more than 10 billion times the mass of the Sun by one billion years after the Big Bang.

The paper was published Aug. 7 in Science and is available online.

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

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.

Three Supermassive Black Holes Tango in a Distant Galaxy, Marking a Huge Discovery

In a galaxy four billion light-years away, three supermassive black holes are locked in a whirling embrace. It’s the tightest trio of black holes known to date and even suggests that these closely packed systems are more common than previously thought.

“What remains extraordinary to me is that these black holes, which are at the very extreme of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, are orbiting one another at 300 times the speed of sound on Earth,” said lead author Roger Deane from the University of Cape Town in a press release.

“Not only that, but using the combined signals from radio telescopes on four continents we are able to observe this exotic system one third of the way across the Universe. It gives me great excitement as this is just scratching the surface of a long list of discoveries that will be made possible with the Square Kilometer Array.”

The system, dubbed SDSS J150243.091111557.3, was first identified as a quasar — a supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy, which is rapidly accreting material and shining brightly — four years ago. But its spectrum was slightly wacky with its doubly ionized oxygen emission line [OIII] split into two peaks instead of one.

A favorable explanation suggested there were two active supermassive black holes hiding in the galaxy’s core.

An active galaxy typically shows single-peaked narrow emission lines, which stem from a surrounding region of ionized gas, Deane told Universe Today. The fact that this active galaxy shows double-peaked emission lines, suggests there are two surrounding regions of ionized gas and therefore two active supermassive black holes.

But one of the supermassive black holes was enshrouded in dust. So Deane and colleagues dug a little further. They used a technique called Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI), which is a means of linking telescopes together, combining signals separated by up to 10,000 km to see detail 50 times greater than the Hubble Space Telescope.

Observations from the European VLBI network — an array of European, Chinese, Russian, and South American antennas — revealed that the dust-covered supermassive black hole was once again two instead of one, making the system three supermassive black holes in total.

The VLBI network. Image Credit: Deane
The VLBI network. Image Credit: Roger Deane

“This is what was so surprising,” Deane told Universe Today. “Our aim was to confirm the two suspected black holes. We did not expect one of these was in fact two, which could only be revealed by the European VLBI Network due [to the] very fine detail it is able to discern.”

Deane and colleagues looked through six similar galaxies before finding their first trio. The fact that they found one so quickly suggests that they’re more common than previously thought.

The inner pair of black holes of the triple system as seen by the European VLBI Network (EVN). Contours show radio emission at 1.7 GHz, the colour scale show radio emission at 5 GHz frequency. Credit: R.P. Deane et al.
The inner pair of black holes of the triple system as seen by the European VLBI Network (EVN). Image Credit: R.P. Deane et al.

Before today, only four triple black hole systems were known, with the closest pair being 2.4 kiloparsecs apart — roughly 2,000 times the distance from Earth to the nearest star, Proxima Centauri. But the closest pair in this trio is separated by only 140 parsecs — roughly 10 times that same distance.

Although Deane and colleagues relied on the phenomenal resolution of the VLBI technique in order to spatially separate the two close-in black holes, they also showed that their presence could be inferred from larger-scale features. The orbital motion of the black hole, for instance, is imprinted on its large jets, twisting them into a helical-like shape. This may provide smaller telescopes with a tool to find them with much greater efficiency.

“If the result holds up, it’ll be very cool,” binary supermassive black hole expert Jessie Runnoe from Pennsylvania State University told Universe Today. This research has multiple implications for understanding further phenomena.

The first sheds light on galaxy evolution. Two or three supermassive black holes are the smoking gun that the galaxy has merged with another. So by looking at these galaxies in detail, astronomers can understand how galaxies have evolved into their present-day shapes and sizes.

The second sheds light on a phenomenon known as gravitational radiation. Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity predicts that when one of the two or three supermassive black holes spirals inward, gravitational waves — ripples in the fabric of space-time itself — propagate out into space.

Future radio telescopes should be able to measure gravitational waves from such systems as their orbits decay.

“Further in the future, the Square Kilometer Array will allow us to find and study these systems in exquisite detail, and really allow us [to] gain a much better understanding of how black holes shape galaxies over the history of the Universe,” said coauthor Matt Jarvis from the Universities of Oxford and Western Cape.

The research was published today in the journal Nature.

Quasars Tell The Story Of How Fast The Young Universe Expanded

For those who saw the Cosmos episode on William Herschel describing telescopes as time machines, here is a clear example of that. By examining 140,000 objects called quasars (galaxies with an active black hole at their centers), astronomers have charted the expansion rate of the universe — not now, but 10.8 billion years ago.

This is the most precise measurement ever of the universe’s expansion rate at any point in time, the science teams said, with the calculation showing the universe was expanding by 1% every 44 million years at that time. (That figure is to 2% precision, the researchers added.)

“If we look back to the Universe when galaxies were three times closer together than they are today, we’d see that a pair of galaxies separated by a million light-years would be drifting apart at a speed of 68 kilometers per second as the Universe expands,” stated Andreu Font-Ribera of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who led one of the two analyses.

The researchers used a telescope called the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, a 2.5-meter telescope at Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico. The discovery was made during Sloan’s Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey, or BOSS, whose aim has been to figure out the expansion and acceleration of the universe.

The accelerating, expanding Universe. Credit: NASA/WMAP
The accelerating, expanding Universe. Credit: NASA/WMAP

“BOSS determines the expansion rate at a given time in the Universe by measuring the size of baryon acoustic oscillations (BAO), a signature imprinted in the way matter is distributed, resulting from sound waves in the early Universe,” the Sloan Digital Sky Survey stated. “This imprint is visible in the distribution of galaxies, quasars, and intergalactic hydrogen throughout the cosmos.”

Font-Ribera and his collaborators examined how quasars are distributed compared to hydrogen gas to calculate distance. The other analysis, led by Timothée Delubac (Centre de Saclay, France), examined the hydrogen gas to see patterns and measure mass distribution.

You can read more about Font-Ribera’s team’s research in preprint version on Arxiv. Delubac’s research does not appear to be available online, but the title is “Baryon Acoustic Oscillations in the Ly-alpha forest of BOSS DR11 quasars” and it has been submitted to Astronomy & Astrophysics.

Source: Sloan Digital Sky Survey

Weekly Space Hangout – March 7, 2014: Cosmos Premiere & NASA Budget

Host: Fraser Cain
Astrojournalists: David Dickinson, Matthew Francis, Casey Dreier, Jason Major, Brian Koberlein, Alan Boyle

This week’s stories:

Alan Boyle (@b0yle, cosmiclog.com ):
Cosmos premiere!

David Andrew Dickinson (@astroguyz):
Watch the Close Pass of NEO 2014 DX110
Daylight Saving time: A Spring Forward or a Step Back?
A Natural Planetary Defense Against Solar Storms

Matthew Francis (@DrMRFrancis, BowlerHatScience.org):
Using gravitational lensing to measure a spinning quasar
CosmoAcademy classes

Casey Dreier (Planetary.org):
The 2015 NASA Budget Request
NASA Kinda Embraces Exploring Europa

Jason Major (@JPMajor, LightsInTheDark.com):
That’s the way the asteroid crumbles

Brian Koberlein (@briankoberlein, briankoberlein.com):
*Possible* evidence for dark matter WIMPs
Black Holes exceed Eddington limit
Using quasars in a quantum experiment

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Friday at 12:00 pm Pacific / 3:00 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Google+, Universe Today, or the Universe Today YouTube page.

What Is A Quasar?

I love it when scientists discover something unusual in nature. They have no idea what it is, and then over decades of research, evidence builds, and scientists grow to understand what’s going on.

My favorite example? Quasars.

Astronomers first knew they had a mystery on their hands in the 1960s when they turned the first radio telescopes to the sky.

They detected the radio waves streaming off the Sun, the Milky Way and a few stars, but they also turned up bizarre objects they couldn’t explain. These objects were small and incredibly bright.

They named them quasi-stellar-objects or “quasars”, and then began to argue about what might be causing them. The first was found to be moving away at more than a third the speed of light.

But was it really?

An artist's conception of jets protruding from an AGN.
An artist’s conception of jets protruding from an AGN.
Maybe we were seeing the distortion of gravity from a black hole, or could it be the white hole end of a wormhole. And If it was that fast, then it was really, really far… 4 billion light years away. And it generating as much energy as an entire galaxy with a hundred billion stars.

What could do this?

Here’s where Astronomers got creative. Maybe quasars weren’t really that bright, and it was our understanding of the size and expansion of the Universe that was wrong. Or maybe we were seeing the results of a civilization, who had harnessed all stars in their galaxy into some kind of energy source.

Then in the 1980s, astronomers started to agree on the active galaxy theory as the source of quasars. That, in fact, several different kinds of objects: quasars, blazars and radio galaxies were all the same thing, just seen from different angles. And that some mechanism was causing galaxies to blast out jets of radiation from their cores.

But what was that mechanism?

This artist's concept illustrates a quasar, or feeding black hole, similar to APM 08279+5255, where astronomers discovered huge amounts of water vapor. Gas and dust likely form a torus around the central black hole, with clouds of charged gas above and below. Image credit: NASA/ESA
This artist’s concept illustrates a quasar, or feeding black hole, similar to APM 08279+5255, where astronomers discovered huge amounts of water vapor. Gas and dust likely form a torus around the central black hole, with clouds of charged gas above and below. Image credit: NASA/ESA
We now know that all galaxies have supermassive black holes at their centers; some billions of times the mass of the Sun. When material gets too close, it forms an accretion disk around the black hole. It heats up to millions of degrees, blasting out an enormous amount of radiation.

The magnetic environment around the black hole forms twin jets of material which flow out into space for millions of light-years. This is an AGN, an active galactic nucleus.

An artist's impression of how quasars might be able to construct their own host galaxies. Image Credit: ESO/L. CalçadaWhen the jets are perpendicular to our view, we see a radio galaxy. If they’re at an angle, we see a quasar. And when we’re staring right down the barrel of the jet, that’s a blazar. It’s the same object, seen from three different perspectives.

Supermassive black holes aren’t always feeding. If a black hole runs out of food, the jets run out of power and shut down. Right up until something else gets too close, and the whole system starts up again.

The Milky Way has a supermassive black hole at its center, and it’s all out of food. It doesn’t have an active galactic nucleus, and so, we don’t appear as a quasar to some distant galaxy.

We may have in the past, and may again in the future. In 10 billion years or so, when the Milky way collides with Andromeda, our supermassive black hole may roar to life as a quasar, consuming all this new material.

If you’d like more information on Quasars, check out NASA’s Discussion on Quasars, and here’s a link to NASA’s Ask an Astrophysicist Page about Quasars.

We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about Quasars Listen here, Episode 98: Quasars.

Sources: UT-Knoxville, NASA, Wikipedia

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

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).