Astronomers Observe the Rotating Accretion Disk Around the Supermassive Black Hole in M77

During the 1970s, scientists confirmed that radio emissions coming from the center of our galaxy were due to the presence of a Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH). Located about 26,000 light-years from Earth between the Sagittarius and Scorpius constellation, this feature came to be known as Sagittarius A*. Since that time, astronomers have come to understand that most massive galaxies have an SMBH at their center.

What’s more, astronomers have come to learn that black holes in these galaxies are surrounded by massive rotating toruses of dust and gas, which is what accounts for the energy they put out. However, it was only recently that a team of astronomers, using the the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), were able to capture an image of the rotating dusty gas torus around the supermassive black hole of M77.

The study which details their findings recently appeared in the Astronomical Journal Letters under the title “ALMA Reveals an Inhomogeneous Compact Rotating Dense Molecular Torus at the NGC 1068 Nucleus“. The study was conducted by a team of Japanese researchers from the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan – led by Masatoshi Imanishi – with assistance from Kagoshima University.

The central region of the spiral galaxy M77. The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope imaged the distribution of stars. ALMA revealed the distribution of gas in the very center of the galaxy. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/Imanishi et al./NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and A. van der Hoeven

Like most massive galaxies, M77 has an Active Galactic Nucleus (AGN), where dust and gas are being accreted onto its SMBH, leading to higher than normal luminosity. For some time, astronomers have puzzled over the curious relationship that exists between SMBHs and galaxies. Whereas more massive galaxies have larger SMBHs, host galaxies are still 10 billion times larger than their central black hole.

This naturally raises questions about how two objects of vastly different scales could directly affect each other. As a result, astronomers have sought to study AGN is order to determine how galaxies and black holes co-evolve. For the sake of their study, the team conducted high-resolution observations of the central region of M77, a barred spiral galaxy located about 47 million light years from Earth.

Using ALMA, the team imaged the area around M77’s center and were able to resolve a compact gaseous structure with a radius of 20 light-years. As expected, the team found that the compact structure was rotating around the galaxies central black hole. As Masatoshi Imanishi explained in an ALMA press release:

“To interpret various observational features of AGNs, astronomers have assumed rotating donut-like structures of dusty gas around active supermassive black holes. This is called the ‘unified model’ of AGN. However, the dusty gaseous donut is very tiny in appearance. With the high resolution of ALMA, now we can directly see the structure.”

Motion of gas around the supermassive black hole in the center of M77. The gas moving toward us is shown in blue and that moving away from us is in red. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), Imanishi et al.

In the past, astronomers have observed the center of M77, but no one has been able to resolve the rotating torus at its center until now. This was made possible thanks to the superior resolution of ALMA, as well as the selection of molecular emissions lines. These emissions lines include hydrogen cyanide (HCN) and formyl ions (HCO+), which emit microwaves only in dense gas, and carbon monoxide – which emits microwaves under a variety of conditions.

The observations of these emission lines confirmed another prediction made by the team, which was that the torus would be very dense. “Previous observations have revealed the east-west elongation of the dusty gaseous torus,” said Imanishi. “The dynamics revealed from our ALMA data agrees exactly with the expected rotational orientation of the torus.”

However, their observations also indicated that the distribution of gas around an SMBH is more complicated that what a simple unified model suggests. According to this model, the rotation of the torus would follow the gravity of the black hole; but what Imanishi and his team found indicated that gas and dust in the torus also exhibit signs of highly random motion.

These could be an indication that the AGN at the center of M77 had a violent history, which could include merging with a small galaxy in the past. In short, the team’s observations indicate that galactic mergers may have a significant impact on how AGNs form and behave. In this respect, their observations of M77s torus are already providing clues as to the galaxy’s history and evolution.

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope captured this stunning infrared image of the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, where the black hole Sagitarrius A resides. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The study of SMBHs, while intensive, is also very challenging. On the one hand, the closest SMBH (Sagitarrius A*) is relatively quiet, with only a small amount of gas accreting onto it. At the same time, it is located at the center of our galaxy, where it is obscured by intervening dust, gas and stars. As such, astronomers are forced to look to other galaxies to study how SMBHs and their galaxies co-exist.

And thanks to decades of study and improvements in instrumentation, scientists are beginning to get a clear glimpse of these mysterious regions for the first time. By being able to study them in detail, astronomers are also gaining valuable insight into how such massive black holes and their ringed structures could coexist with their galaxies over time.

Further Reading: ALMA, arXiv

Scientists Propose a New Kind of Planet: A Smashed Up Torus of Hot Vaporized Rock

Artist's impression of a Mars-sized object crashing into the Earth, starting the process that eventually created our Moon. Credit: Joe Tucciarone

There’s a new type of planet in town, though you won’t find it in well-aged solar systems like our own. It’s more of a stage of formation that planets like Earth can go through. And its existence helps explain the relationship between Earth and our Moon.

The new type of planet is a huge, spinning, donut-shaped mass of hot, vaporized rock, formed as planet-sized objects smash into each other. The pair of scientists behind the study explaining this new planet type have named it a ‘synestia.’ Simon Lock, a graduate student at Harvard University, and Sarah Stewart, a professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of California, Davis, say that Earth was at one time a synestia.

Rocky planets like Earth are accreted from smaller bodies over time. Objects with high energy and high angular momentum could form a synestia, a transient stage in planetary formation where vaporized rock orbits the rest of the body. In this image, each of the three stages has the same mass. Image: Simon Lock, Harvard University
Rocky planets like Earth are accreted from smaller bodies over time. Objects with high energy and high angular momentum could form a synestia, a transient stage in planetary formation where vaporized rock orbits the rest of the body. In this image, each of the three stages has the same mass. Image: Simon Lock, Harvard University

The current theory of planetary formation goes like this: When a star forms, the left-over material is in motion around the star. This left-over material is called a protoplanetary disk. The material coagulates into larger bodies as the smaller ones collide and join together.

As the bodies get larger and larger, the force of their collisions becomes greater and greater, and when two large bodies collided, their rocky material melts. Then, the newly created body cools, and becomes spherical. It’s understood that this is how Earth and the other rocky planets in our Solar System formed.

Lock and Stewart looked at this process and asked what would happen if the resulting body was spinning quickly.

When a body is spinning, the law of conservation of angular momentum comes into play. That law says that a spinning body will spin until an external torque slows it down. The often-used example from figure skating helps explain this.

If you’ve ever watched figure skaters, and who hasn’t, their actions are very instructive. When a single skater is spinning rapidly, she stretches out her arms to slow the rate of spin. When she folds her arms back into her body, she speeds up again. Her angular momentum is conserved.

This short video shows figure skaters and physics in action.

If you don’t like figure skating, this one uses the Earth to explain angular momentum.

Now take the example from a pair of figure skaters. When they’re both turning, and the two of them join together by holding each other’s hands and arms, their angular momentum is added together and conserved.

Replace two figure skaters with two planets, and this is what the two scientists behind the study wanted to model. What would happen if two large bodies with high energy and high angular momentum collided with each other?

If the two bodies had high enough temperatures and high enough angular momentum, a new type of planetary structure would form: the synestia. “We looked at the statistics of giant impacts, and we found that they can form a completely new structure,” Stewart said.

“We looked at the statistics of giant impacts, and we found that they can form a completely new structure.” – Professor Sarah Stewart, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of California, Davis.

As explained in a press release from the UC Davis, for a synestia to form, some of the vaporized material from the collision must go into orbit. When a sphere is solid, every point on it is rotating at the same rate, if not the same speed. But when some of the material is vaporized, its volume expands. If it expands enough, and if its moving fast enough, it leaves orbit and forms a huge disc-shaped synestia.

Other theories have proposed that two large enough bodies could form an orbiting molten mass after colliding. But if the two bodies had high enough energy and temperature to vaporize some of the rock, the resulting synestia would occupy a much larger space.

“The main issue with looking for synestias around other stars is that they don’t last a long time. These are transient, evolving objects that are made during planet formation.” – Professor Sarah Stewart, UC Davis.

These synestias likely wouldn’t last very long. They would cool quickly and condense back into rocky bodies. For a body the size of Earth, the synestia might only last one hundred years.

The synestia structure sheds some light on how moons are formed. The Earth and the Moon are very similar in terms of composition, so it’s likely they formed as a result of a collision. It’s possible that the Earth and Moon formed from the same synestia.

These synestias have been modelled, but they haven’t been observed. However, the James Webb Space Telescope will have the power to peer into protoplanetary disks and watch planets forming. Will it observe a synestia?

“These are transient, evolving objects that are made during planet formation.” – Professor Sarah Stewart, UC Davis

In an email exchange with Universe Today, Dr. Sarah Stewart of UC Davis, one of the scientists behind the study, told us that “The main issue with looking for synestias around other stars is that they don’t last a long time. These are transient, evolving objects that are made during planet formation.”

“So the best bet for finding a rocky synestia is young systems where the body is close to the star. For gas giant planets, they may form a synestia for a period of their formation. We are getting close to being able to image circumplanetary disks in other star systems.”

Once we have the ability to observe planets forming in their circumstellar disks, we may find that synestias are more common than rare. In fact, planets may go through the synestia stage multiple times. Dr. Stewart told us that “Based on the statistics presented in our paper, we expect that most (more than half) of rocky planets that form in a manner similar to Earth became synestias one or more times during the giant impact stage of accretion.”

A Proposal For Juno To Observe The Volcanoes Of Io

To accomplish its science objectives, NASA’s Juno spacecraft orbits over Jupiter’s poles and passes repeatedly through hazardous radiation belts. Two Boston University researchers propose using Juno to probe the ever-changing flux of volcanic gases-turned-ions spewed by Io’s volcanoes. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Jupiter may be the largest planet in the Solar System with a diameter 11 times that of Earth, but it pales in comparison to its own magnetosphere. The planet’s magnetic domain extends sunward at least 3 million miles (5 million km) and on the back side all the way to Saturn for a total of 407 million miles or more than 400 times the size of the Sun.

Jupiter’s large magnetic field interacts with the solar wind to form an invisible magnetosphere. If we were able to see it, it would span at least several degrees of sky. It would show its greatest extent when viewing Jupiter from the side at quadrature, when the planet stands due south at sunrise or sunset.In the artist’s depiction, the planet would be located between the two “purple eyes” — too small to see at this scale. Credit: NASA.

If we had eyes adapted to see the Jovian magnetosphere at night, its teardrop-like shape would easily extend across several degrees of sky! No surprise then that Jove’s magnetic aura has been called one of the largest structures in the Solar System.

A 5-frame sequence taken by the New Horizons spacecraft in May 2007 shows a cloud of volcanic debris from Io’s Tvashtar volcano. The plume extends some 200 miles (330 km) above the moon’s surface. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Io, Jupiter’s innermost of the planet’s four large moons, orbits deep within this giant bubble. Despite its small size — about 200 miles smaller than our own Moon — it doesn’t lack in superlatives. With an estimated 400 volcanoes, many of them still active, Io is the most volcanically active body in the Solar System. In the moon’s low gravity, volcanoes spew sulfur, sulfur dioxide gas and fragments of basaltic rock up to 310 miles (500 km) into space in beautiful, umbrella-shaped plumes.

This schematic of Jupiter’s magnetic environments shows the planets looping magnetic field lines (similar to those generated by a simple bar magnet), Io and its plasma torus and flux tube. Credit: John Spencer / Wikipedia CC-BY-SA3.0 with labels by the author

Once aloft, electrons whipped around by Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field strike the neutral gases and ionize them (strips off their electrons). Ionized atoms and molecules (ions) are no longer neutral but possess a positive or negative electric charge. Astronomers refer to swarms of ionized atoms as plasma.

Jupiter rotates rapidly, spinning once every 9.8 hours, dragging the whole magnetosphere with it. As it spins past Io, those volcanic ions get caught up and dragged along for the ride, rotating around the planet in a ring called the Io plasma torus. You can picture it as a giant donut with Jupiter in the “hole” and the tasty, ~8,000-mile-thick ring centered on Io’s orbit.

That’s not all. Jupiter’s magnetic field also couples Io’s atmosphere to the planet’s polar regions, pumping Ionian ions through two “pipelines” to the magnetic poles and generating a powerful electric current known as the Io flux tube. Like firefighters on fire poles, the ions follow the planet’s magnetic field lines into the upper atmosphere, where they strike and excite atoms, spawning an ultraviolet-bright patch of aurora within the planet’s overall aurora. Astronomers call it Io’s magnetic footprint. The process works in reverse, too, spawning auroras in Io’s tenuous atmosphere.

The tilt of Juno’s orbit relative to Jupiter changes over the course of the mission, sending the spacecraft increasingly deeper into the planet’s intense radiation belts. Orbits are numbered from early in the mission to late. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Io is the main supplier of particles to Jupiter’s magnetosphere. Some of the same electrons stripped from sulfur and oxygen atoms during an earlier eruption return to strike atoms shot out by later blasts. Round and round they go in a great cycle of microscopic bombardment! The constant flow of high-speed, charged particles in Io’s vicinity make the region a lethal environment not only for humans but also for spacecraft electronics, the reason NASA’s Juno probe gets the heck outta there after each perijove or closest approach to Jupiter.

Io’s flux tube directs ions down Jupiter’s magnetic field lines to create magnetic footprints of enhanced aurora in Jupiter’s polar regions. An electric current of 5 million amps flows along Io’s flux tube.Credit: NASA/J.Clarke/HST

But there’s much to glean from those plasma streams.  Astronomy PhD student Phillip Phipps and assistant professor of astronomy Paul Withers of Boston University have hatched a plan to use the Juno spacecraft to probe Io’s plasma torus to indirectly study the timing and flow of material from Io’s volcanoes into Jupiter’s magnetosphere. In a paper published on Jan. 25, they propose using changes in the radio signal sent by Juno as it passes through different regions of the torus to measure how much stuff is there and how its density changes over time.

The technique is called a radio occultation. Radio waves are a form of light just like white light. And like white light, they get bent or refracted when passing through a medium like air (or plasma in the case of Io). Blue light is slowed more and experiences the most bending; red light is slowed less and refracted least, the reason red fringes a rainbow’s outer edge and blue its inner. In radio occultations, refraction results in changes in frequency caused by variations in the density of plasma in Io’s torus.

The best spacecraft for the attempt is one with a polar orbit around Jupiter, where it cuts a clean cross-section through different parts of the torus during each orbit. Guess what? With its polar orbit, Juno’s the probe for the job! Its main mission is to map Jupiter’s gravitational and magnetic fields, so an occultation experiment jives well with mission goals. Previous missions have netted just two radio occultations of the torus, but Juno could potentially slam dunk 24.

New Horizons took this photo of Io in infrared light. The Tvastar volcano is bright spot at top. At least 10 other volcanic hot spots dot the moon’s night side. Credit: NASA/JHUPL/SRI

Because the paper was intended to show that the method is a feasible one, it remains to be seen whether NASA will consider adding a little extra credit work to Juno’s homework. It seems a worthy and practical goal, one that will further enlighten our understanding of how volcanoes create aurorae in the bizarre electric and magnetic environment of the largest planet.

Mystery of Escaping Planetary Atmospheres Comes Under Japanese Scrutiny

Venus and Mars may be all right tonight, but there’s still a lot we don’t understand about these planets. Why does one, Venus,  have such a thick atmosphere? Why is that of Mars so thin? And why is Earth’s atmosphere so different again from what we see on Venus and Mars?

A new JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) satellite aims to better understand what’s going on. It’s called SPRINT-A, for Spectroscopic Planet Observatory for Recognition of Interaction of Atmosphere.

JAXA has set an official launch date of Aug. 22 from the Uchinoura Space Center, although the window extends as far as Sept. 30. (Launches can be delayed due to weather and mechanical difficulties.) The satellite’s expected Earth orbit will range from 590 to 715 miles (950 to 1150 kilometers) above the planet.

“Venus and Earth may be called twin planets, and it recently becomes clear that three terrestrial planets in the solar system – including Mars – have very similar environments in the beginning era of the solar system,” JAXA stated in a press release.

Earth may not have formed quite like once thought (Image: NASA/Suomi NPP)
Earth’s atmosphere was similar to that of Venus and Mars in the early solar system, but now it’s quite different, says JAXA. (Image: NASA/Suomi NPP)

The agency pointed out, however, that these three planets ended up with different fates. Venus has a runaway greenhouse effect on its planet, with surface temperatures reaching a scorching 752 degrees Fahrenheit (400 degrees Celsius). Mars, on the other hand, has a very thin atmosphere and more variable temperatures that can get a little chilly.

Understanding how atmospheres escape into outer space is the main goal of SPRINT-A. The sun, the scientists stated, had more intense activity in the past than what we see presently, which could have blown away the atmosphere on some terrestrial planets.

“The study on interaction of the strong solar wind on the atmosphere of the planet leads to acquiring knowledge of history in the early stage of the solar system,” JAXA stated.

Besides looking at the inner solar system, SPRINT-A will investigate a phenomenon related to a splotchy volcanic moon orbiting the planet Jupiter.

Io, a moon of Jupiter.  The colors in this image have been enhanced to better show differences. Sulfur dioxide frost appears in white and grey, and other types of sulfur are in yellow and brown. Recent volcanic activity is marked by red and black blotches. Credit: NASA
Io, a moon of Jupiter. The colors in this image have been enhanced to better show differences. Sulfur dioxide frost appears in white and grey, and other types of sulfur are in yellow and brown. Recent volcanic activity is marked by red and black blotches. Credit: NASA

SPRINT-A aims to better understand a ring of material surrounding Jupiter that came from Io.

Electrons and ions from the volcanic moon surround Jupiter and, as they collide, produce ultraviolet light in a process similar to what causes auroras in the upper atmosphere of Earth and other planets. How this happens is still being figured out, though.

It’s a pretty radiation-heavy environment in that region of the solar system. The spacecraft Galileo safely orbited the Jovian moons for years, but humans would have a little more trouble surviving the radiation without heavy shielding and careful precautions.

Check out more information about SPRINT-A on JAXA’s website. Japan also recently announced it will launch the  Kounotori 4 cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station in August, likely Aug. 4.