Galaxies Regulate their Own Growth so they Don’t Run Out of Star Forming Gas

A simulation of a galaxy’s ‘heart and lungs’ at work is pictured inset on an artist's impression of bi-polar jets of gas originating from a supermassive black hole at the centre of a galaxy. Credit ESA/Hubble, L. Calçada (ESO) / C Richards/MD Smith/University of Kent Licence type Attribution (CC BY 4.0)

Look at most spiral or barred spiral galaxies and you will see multiple regions where stars are forming. These star forming regions are comprised of mostly hydrogen gas with a few other elements for good measure. The first galaxies in the Universe had huge supplies of this star forming gas. Left unchecked they could have burned through the gas quickly, generating enormous amounts of star formation. Life fast though and die young for such an energetic burst of star formation would soon fizzle out leaving behind dead and dying stars. In some way it seems, galaxies seem to regulate their star formation thanks to supermassive black holes at their centre. 

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Supermassive Black Holes Got Started From Massive Cosmic Seeds

The J0148 quasar circled in red. Two insets show, on top, the central black hole, and on bottom, the stellar emission from the host galaxy. Credit: NASA

Supermassive black holes are central to the dynamics and evolution of galaxies. They play a role in galactic formation, stellar production, and possibly even the clustering of dark matter. Almost every galaxy has a supermassive black hole, which can make up a small fraction of a galaxy’s mass in nearby galaxies. While we know a great deal about these gravitational monsters, one question that has lingered is just how supermassive black holes gained mass so quickly.

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Black Holes are Tearing Stars Apart All Around Us

Illustration of star remnants after it is shredded by a supermassive black hole. Credit: NASA

Galaxy NGC3799 lies around 16 million light years from Earth. Any event observed today within that galaxy took place 16 million years ago. One such event was observed in February 2023 when a surge in brightness in the core was followed by a rapid dimming. The observations that followed revealed that the event was a star being torn apart by a supermassive black hole at the heart of the galaxy. This is not the first time such an event has been observed but it is the first to be within our galactic backyard suggesting it may be more common that first thought. 

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