Sometimes Compact Galaxies Hide Their Black Holes

Illustration of an active quasar. What role does its dark matter halo play in activating the quasar? Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
Illustration of an active quasar. New research shows that SMBHs eat rapidly enough to trigger them. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Quasars, short for quasi-stellar objects, are one of the most powerful and luminous classes of objects in our Universe. A subclass of active galactic nuclei (AGNs), quasars are extremely bright galactic cores that temporarily outshine all the stars in their disks. This is due to the supermassive black holes in the galactic cores that consume material from their accretion disks, a donut-shaped ring of gas and dust that orbit them. This matter is accelerated to close to the speed of light and slowly consumed, releasing energy across the entire electromagnetic spectrum.

Based on past observations, it is well known to astronomers that quasars are obscured by the accretion disk that surrounds them. As powerful radiation is released from the SMBH, it causes the dust and gas to glow brightly in visible light, X-rays, gamma-rays, and other wavelengths. However, according to a new study led by researchers from the Centre for Extragalactic Astronomy (CEA) at Durham University, quasars can also be obscured by the gas and dust of their entire host galaxies. Their findings could help astronomers better understand the link between SMBHs and galactic evolution.

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New Stars Forming Uncomfortably Close to the Milky Way’s Supermassive Black Hole

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

Astronomers examining a star cluster near Sgr A*, the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole, found that the cluster has some unusually young members for its location. That’s difficult to explain since the region so close to the powerful black hole is infused with powerful radiation and dominated by the black hole’s extremely powerful gravitational force. According to our understanding of stellar formation, young stars shouldn’t be there.

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A Black Hole Switched On in the Blink of an Eye

This artist’s impression depicts a rapidly spinning supermassive black hole surrounded by an accretion disc. This thin disc of rotating material consists of the leftovers of a Sun-like star which was ripped apart by the tidal forces of the black hole. Shocks in the colliding debris as well as heat generated in accretion led to a burst of light, resembling a supernova explosion. Credit: ESO, ESA/Hubble, M. Kornmesser

In 2019, a team of astronomers led by Dr. Samantha Oates of the University of Birmingham discovered one of the most powerful transients ever seen – where astronomical objects change their brightness over a short period. Oates and her colleagues found this object, known as J221951-484240 (or J221951), using the Ultra-Violet and Optical Telescope (UVOT) on NASA’s Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory while searching for the source of a gravitational wave (GW) that was thought to be caused by two massive objects merging in our galaxy.

Multiple follow-up observations were made using the UVOT and Swift’s other instruments – the Burst Alert Telescope (BAT) and X-Ray Telescope (XRT), the Hubble Space Telescope, the South African Large Telescope (SALT), the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), the Australia Telescope Compact Array (ATCA), and more. The combined observations and spectra revealed that the source was a supermassive black hole (SMBH) in a distant galaxy that mysteriously “switched on,” becoming one of the most dramatic bursts of brightness ever seen with a black hole.

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Pulsars Could Help Map the Black Hole at the Center of the Milky Way

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) looked at Sagittarius A*, (image of Sag A* by the EHT Collaboration) to study something bright in the region around Sag A*. Credit: ESO/José Francisco Salgado.

The Theory of General Relativity (GR), proposed by Einstein over a century ago, remains one of the most well-known scientific postulates of all time. This theory, which explains how spacetime curvature is altered in the presence of massive objects, remains the cornerstone of our most widely-accepted cosmological models. This should come as no surprise since GR has been verified nine ways from Sunday and under the most extreme conditions imaginable. In particular, scientists have mounted several observation campaigns to test GR using Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*), the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way.

Last year, the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) – an international consortium of astronomers and observatories – announced they had taken the first images of Sag A*, which came just two years after the release of the first-ever images of an SMBH (M87). In 2014, the European members of the EHT launched another initiative known as BlackHoleCam to gain a better understanding of SMBHs using a combination of radio imaging, pulsar observations, astrometry, and GR. In a recent paper, the BHC initiative described how they tested GR by observing pulsars orbiting Sgr A*.

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eROSITA Sees Changes in the Most Powerful Quasar

Artist’s impression of a quasar. These all have supermassive black holes at their hearts. Credit: NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. da Silva
Artist’s impression of a quasar. These all have supermassive black holes at their hearts. Credit: NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. da Silva

After almost seventy years of study, astronomers are still fascinated by active galactic nuclei (AGN), otherwise known as quasi-stellar objects (or “quasars.”) These are the result of supermassive black holes (SMBHs) at the center of massive galaxies, which cause gas and dust to fall in around them and form accretion disks. The material in these disks is accelerated to close to the speed of light, causing it to release tremendous amounts of radiation in the visible, radio, infrared, ultraviolet, gamma-ray, and X-ray wavelengths. In fact, quasars are so bright that they temporarily outshine every star in their host galaxy’s disk combined.

The brightest quasar observed to date, 100,000 billion times as luminous as our Sun, is known as SMSS J114447.77-430859.3 (J1144). This AGN is hosted by a galaxy located roughly 9.6 billion light years from Earth between the constellations Centaurus and Hydra. Using data from the eROSITA All Sky Survey and other space telescopes, an international team of astronomers conducted the first X-ray observations of J1144. This data allowed the team to investigate prevailing theories about AGNs that could provide new insight into the inner workings of quasars and how they affect their host galaxies.

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The Largest Explosion Ever Seen in the Universe

Artist impression of a black hole accretion. Credit: John A. Paice.

Throughout recorded history, humans have looked up at the night sky and witnessed the major astronomical events known as a “supernova.” The name, still used by astronomers, referred to the belief that these bursts of light in the “firmament” signaled the birth of a “new star.” With the birth of telescopes and modern astronomy, we have since learned that supernovae are what occur at the end of a star’s lifecycle. At this point, when a star has exhausted its hydrogen and helium fuel, it experiences gravitational collapse at its center.

This leads to a tremendous explosion that can be seen billions of light-years distant, releasing tremendous amounts of energy and blowing the star’s outer layers off. Thanks to an international team of astronomers led by the University of Southhampton, the most powerful cosmic explosion has been confirmed! The stellar explosion, AT2021lwx, took place about 8 billion light-years away in the constellation Vulpecula and was over ten times brighter than any supernova ever observed and 100 times brighter than all the stars in the Milky Way combined!

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Hypervelocity Stars Teach us About Black Holes and Supernovae

An artist's conception of a hypervelocity star that has escaped the Milky Way. Credit: NASA

Hypervelocity stars (HVS) certainly live up to their name, traveling thousands of kilometers per second or a fraction of the speed of light (relativistic speeds). These speed demons are thought to be the result of galactic or black hole mergers, globular clusters kicking out members, or binary pairs where one star is kicked out when the other goes supernova. Occasionally, these stars are fast enough to escape our galaxy and (in some cases) take their planetary systems along for the ride. This could have drastic implications for our theories of how life could be distributed throughout the cosmos (aka. panspermia theory).

There are thousands of these stars in our galaxy, and tracking them has become the task of cutting-edge astrometry missions (like the ESA’s Gaia Observatory). In previous research, astronomers suggested that these stars could be used to determine the mass of the Milky Way. In a recent study from Leiden University in the Netherlands, Ph.D. candidate Fraser Evans showed how data on HVS could be used to probe the mysteries of the most extreme objects in our Universe – supermassive black holes (SMBHs) and the violent supernovae of massive stars.

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A Distant Galaxy Ate All of its Friends. Now It’s All Alone

Composite image of a lonely galaxy containing a supermassive black hole, two jets, and an X-ray hotspot, all surrounded by hot gas. Credit: NASA MSFC/SAO/Chandra

Over 13 billion years ago, the first galaxies in the Universe formed. They were elliptical, with intermediate black holes (IMBHs) at their centers surrounded by a halo of stars, gas, and dust. Over time, these galaxies evolved by flattening out into disks with a large bulge in the middle. They were then drawn together by mutual gravitational attraction to form galaxy clusters, massive collections that comprise the large-scale cosmic structure. This force of attraction also led to mergers, where galaxies and their central black holes came together to create larger spiral galaxies with central supermassive black holes (SMBHs).

This process of mergers and assimilation (and their role in galactic evolution) is still a mystery to astronomers today since much of it took place during the early Universe, which is still very difficult to observe with existing telescopes. Using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the International Gemini Observatory, an international team of astronomers observed a lone distant galaxy that appears to have consumed all of its former companions. Their findings, which recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal, suggest galaxies in the early Universe grew faster than previously thought.

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A Mysterious Blob Near the Milky Way’s Supermassive Black Hole Might Finally Have an Explanation

Orbits of stars near Sagittarius A*. Credit: ESO/M. Parsa/L. Calçada

At the center of the Milky Way, there is a massive persistent radio source known as Sagittarius A*. Since the 1970s, astronomers have known that this source is a supermassive black hole (SMBH) roughly 4 million times the mass of our Sun. Thanks to advancements in optics, spectrometers, and interferometry, astronomers have been able to peer into Galactic Center. In addition, thanks to the international consortium known as the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), the world got to see the first image of Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*) in May 2022.

These efforts have allowed astronomers and astrophysicists to characterize the environment at the center of our galaxy and see how the laws of physics work under the most extreme conditions. For instance, scientists have been observing a mysterious elongated object around the Sgr A* (named X7) and wondered what it was. In a new study based on two decades’ worth of data, an international team of astronomers with the UCLA Galactic Center Group (GCG) and the Keck Observatory have proposed that it could be a debris cloud created by a stellar collision.

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Dust is Hiding how Powerful Quasars Really are

An artist’s impression of what the dust around a quasar might look like from a light year away. Credit Peter Z. Harrington

In the 1970s, astronomers discovered that the persistent radio source at the center of our galaxy was a supermassive black hole (SMBH). Today, this gravitational behemoth is known as Sagittarius A* and has a mass roughly 4 million times that of the Sun. Since then, surveys have shown that SMBHs reside at the center of most massive galaxies and play a vital role in star formation and galactic evolution. In addition, the way these black holes consume gas and dust causes their respective galaxies to emit a tremendous amount of radiation from their Galactic Centers.

These are what astronomers refer to as Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN), or quasars, which can become so bright that they temporarily outshine all the stars in their disks. In fact, AGNs are the most powerful compact steady sources of energy in the Universe, which is why astronomers are always trying to get a closer look at them. For instance, a new study led by the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) indicates that scientists have substantially underestimated the amount of energy emitted by AGN by not recognizing the extent to which their light is dimmed by dust.

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