Astronomers Discover Hundreds of Mysterious Filaments Pointing Towards Our Milky Way’s Massive Black Hole
Astronomers have found hundreds of mysterious filaments pointing towards the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole, which could uncover fresh secrets about the dark abyss at the centre of our galaxy.
The strange horizontal strands are 25,000 light years from Earth and have been likened to spokes spreading out on a wheel.
“It was a surprise to suddenly find a new population of structures that seem to be pointing in the direction of the black hole,” said Professor Farhad Yusef-Zadeh, of Northwestern University.
“I was actually stunned when I saw these. We had to do a lot of work to establish that we weren’t fooling ourselves. And we found that these filaments are not random but appear to be tied to the outflow of our black hole.
“By studying them, we could learn more about the black hole’s spin and accretion disk orientation. It is satisfying when one finds order in a middle of a chaotic field of the nucleus of our galaxy.”
Known as Sagittarius A*, the black hole is a staggering four million times the mass of our Sun.
Positioned radially, the filaments measure less than 10 light years in length and look like the dots and dashes of Morse code, punctuating only one side of Sagittarius A*.
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The new discoveries are being made possible by enhanced technology, particularly from the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory’s (SARAO) MeerKAT telescope.
To uncover the filaments, estimated to be about six million years old, the researchers used a technique to remove the background and smooth the noise from images to isolate them from surrounding structures.
“The new MeerKAT observations have been a game changer,” said Prof. Yusef-Zadeh, lead author of the paper published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. “The advancement of technology and dedicated observing time have given us new information. It is really a technical achievement from radio astronomers.”
He believes the filaments, pointing radially toward the black hole, appear to be tied to activities in the galactic center.
They appear to emit thermal radiation, accelerating material in a molecular cloud. There are several hundred vertical compared to just a few hundred horizontal.
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The new discovery is filled with unknowns and work to unravel its mysteries has just begun. For now, he can only consider a plausible explanation about the new population’s mechanisms and origins.
“We think they must have originated with some kind of outflow from an activity that happened a few million years ago.
“It seems to be the result of an interaction of that outflowing material with objects near it. Our work is never complete. We always need to make new observations and continually challenge our ideas and tighten up our analysis.”
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Black holes are formed when a dying star collapses inward under the pressure of its own weight. The pull of gravity is so strong that even light can’t escape. This is what makes them invisible. This leads to a supernova, a star’s extremely powerful explosion.
Supermassive black holes can be billions the size of our sun and astronomers believe they can be found at the centre of all large galaxies.
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X-rays and Webb Telescope Provide Dazzling Views of Space Invisible to the Unaided Eye
Looking for a cool way to get your kids involved in astronomy? Just show them this picture.
These images are composite pieces of technological artwork that would be invisible to the naked eye. Five space-based observatories teamed up with one down here on Earth to color in famous regions of space with X-rays and infrared light—neither of which can be seen by us.
The image in the top left is of NGC 346, a star cluster in the Large Magellanic Cloud, 200,000 light years from Earth. The purple and blue haze on the left are X-rays, a form of high-energy light, left over from a supernova explosion. On the right, infrared data from the James Webb and the now-retired Spitzer space telescopes shows plumes of gas and dust that all those twinkling stars are either currently using, or have used to create their shining, burning forms.
The X-rays are being detected by the space-based Chandra X-ray Observatory, developed by Harvard, and humanity’s flagship X-ray observatory.
To the right side, NGC 1672 is a spiral galaxy, but one that astronomers categorize as a “barred” spiral, meaning that the arms close-in to the center appear more like straight bars rather than curved tentacles. Here, Chandra’s purple-colored X-rays reveal black holes amid the James Webb and Hubble telescopes infrared and optical light picture of this galaxy.
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Messier 74 is also known as the “Phantom Galaxy” because it’s relatively dim and difficult to spot with telescopes in a region that is otherwise pretty close to Earth. It’s anything but dim in this image, captured face-on thanks to our planet’s position.
Webb outlines gas and dust in the infrared lights which we see as green, yellow, red, and magenta, while Chandra’s data spotlights high-energy activity from stars at X-ray wavelengths colored in Purple. Hubble’s optical data showcases additional stars and dust along the dust lanes.
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Messier 16, also known as the Eagle Nebula, is a famous region of the sky often referred to as the “Pillars of Creation.” The Webb image shows the dark columns of gas and dust shrouding the few remaining fledgling stars just being formed. The Chandra sources, which look like dots, are young stars that give off copious amounts of X-rays.
Here, the X-rays are in red and blue, and highlight the huge activity given off by some stars in the area.
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Hubble’s hunt for an intermediate-mass black hole
Scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope have found evidence for an intermediate-mass black hole in the closest globular cluster to Earth, Messier 4.
NASA published this original story on May 23, 2023. Edits by EarthSky.
The 3 types of black holes
Astronomers using NASA’s Hubble space telescope have powerful evidence for the presence of a rare class of intermediate-mass black holes that might be lurking in the heart of the closest globular star cluster to Earth – Messier 4 – located somewhere between 6,000 to 7,200 light-years away.
Black holes are like intense gravitational potholes in the fabric of space, and they all seem to come in two sizes: small and humongous. Scientists estimate that 100 million small black holes litter our galaxy. These small black holes, created from exploded stars, are several times the mass of our sun. Meanwhile, supermassive black holes flood the universe at large. These behemoths weigh millions or billions of times our sun’s mass and lie at the centers of galaxies.
But scientists have long-sought a missing link: the intermediate-mass black hole. These black holes would weigh somewhere between 100 and 100,000 solar masses. How would they form, where would they hang out, and why do they seem so rare?
Hunting for an intermediate-mass black hole
Astronomers have identified other possible intermediate-mass black holes through a variety of observational techniques. Two of the best candidates — 3XMM J215022.4-055108, which Hubble helped discover in 2020, and HLX-1, identified in 2009 — reside in dense star clusters in the outskirts of other galaxies. Each of these possible black holes has the mass of tens of thousands of suns. And, they may have once been at the centers of dwarf galaxies. NASA’s Chandra X-ray observatory has also helped make many possible intermediate black hole discoveries, including a large sample in 2018.
Looking much closer to home, scientists have detected many suspected intermediate-mass black holes in dense globular star clusters orbiting our Milky Way galaxy. For example, in 2008, Hubble astronomers announced the suspected presence of an intermediate-mass black hole in the globular cluster Omega Centauri. For many reasons, including the need for more data, these and other intermediate-mass black hole findings still remain inconclusive and do not rule out alternative theories.
Scientists have now used Hubble to zero in on the core of the globular star cluster Messier 4 (M4). They’re black-hole hunting with higher precision than was possible in previous searches. Eduardo Vitral of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, is the lead author on a paper to be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Vitral’s team has detected a possible intermediate-mass black hole of roughly 800 solar masses. The suspected object isn’t visible. However, the team can calculate its mass by studying the motion of stars caught in its gravitational field, like bees swarming around a hive. Measuring their motion takes time and a lot of precision. This is where Hubble accomplishes what no other present-day telescope can do. Astronomers looked at 12 years’ worth of M4 observations from Hubble and resolved pinpoint stars.
His team estimates that the black hole in M4 could be as much as 800 times our sun’s mass. Hubble’s data tend to rule out alternative theories for this object. Some of those theories would be a compact central cluster of unresolved stellar remnants like neutron stars, or smaller black holes swirling around each other. Vitral said:
We have good confidence that we have a very tiny region with a lot of concentrated mass. It’s about three times smaller than the densest dark mass that we had found before in other globular clusters. The region is more compact than what we can reproduce with numerical simulations when we take into account a collection of black holes, neutron stars, and white dwarfs segregated at the cluster’s center. They are not able to form such a compact concentration of mass.
Eliminating alternatives to the intermediate-mass black hole
A grouping of close-knit objects would be dynamically unstable. If the object isn’t a single intermediate-mass black hole, it would require an estimated 40 smaller black holes crammed into a space only 1/10 of a light-year across to produce the observed stellar motions. The consequences are that they would merge and/or be ejected in a game of interstellar pinball. Vitral explained their process:
We measure the motions of stars and their positions, and we apply physical models that try to reproduce these motions. We end up with a measurement of a dark mass extension in the cluster’s center. The closer to the central mass, more randomly the stars are moving. And, the greater the central mass, the faster these stellar velocities.
Because intermediate-mass black holes in globular clusters have been so elusive, Vitral cautions:
While we cannot completely affirm that it is a central point of gravity, we can show that it is very small. It’s too tiny for us to be able to explain other than it being a single black hole. Alternatively, there might be a stellar mechanism we simply don’t know about, at least within current physics.
Bottom line: Scientists using the Hubble space telescope have found evidence for an intermediate-mass black hole in the closest globular cluster to Earth, M4.
Read more: A new Goldilocks black hole
New Pillars of Creation and more: Video and images
New Pillars of Creation and more
On May 23, 2023, NASA released four new composite images from the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the James Webb Space Telescope. The newly combined images include two galaxies, a nebula (the famous Pillars of Creation) and a star cluster. Chandra studies objects in X-ray and captures objects in the high-energy range of the electromagnetic spectrum. Webb studies object in infrared light or objects in the low-energy range of the electromagnetic spectrum.
In addition to Chandra and Webb, the newly combined images use data from a few other sources. Astronomers used visible light data from the Hubble Space Telescope and the European Southern Observatory’s New Technology Telescope. Plus, they included infrared data from the Spitzer Space Telescope, as well as X-ray data from ESA’s XMM-Newton scope. By the way, neither X-ray nor infrared light is visible to our unaided eyes.
Chandra-Webb composite of a nebula and star cluster
The Pillars of Creation is a stunning area of the sky made famous by the Hubble Space Telescope. Also, it’s part of the Eagle Nebula, aka Messier 16. The Webb portion of the new image reveals the columns of gas and dust (in red, green and blue) surrounding some recently formed stars. Then the Chandra portion reveals the strong X-ray emissions (in red and blue) coming from the young, hot stars.
Next up is the star cluster NGC 346 in one of our neighboring galaxies, the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC). The SMC is located 200,000 light-years away. The plumes and arcs are gas and dust where stars and planets can form and are from Webb images. The purple cloud is the result of a massive star exploding as a supernova and is from Chandra images. The Chandra data also include powerful stellar winds blowing off hot and massive young stars. Note: X-ray data are purple and blue, and the infrared and optical data are red, green and blue.
And the galaxy images
And then there is the barred spiral galaxy NGC 1672. The combined image used Chandra (and other X-ray data) to indicate remains of energetic objects like neutron stars and black holes sucking in material from stars close enough to be caught by their gravity. Then the optical and infrared portion of the image – including data from both the Hubble and Chandra – shows the gas and dust of the galaxy’s spiral arms. Note: X-ray data are purple, the optical and infrared data are red, green and blue.
Finally is the face-on spiral galaxy Messier 74. It’s also called the Phantom Galaxy due to a low-surface brightness making it difficult to spot in small telescopes. It’s one of the hardest objects to catch during a Messier Marathon. So the infrared portion from the Webb telescope reveals the gas and dust, while the X-ray data from Chandra bring out the high-energy stars. Then, the optical data from the Hubble show less energetic stars and dust lanes. Note: X-ray data are purple, optical data are orange, cyan and blue, and infrared data are green, yellow, red and magenta.
Bottom line: NASA combined images from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory and the Webb Space Telescope – plus other telescopes – and shared this video of the newly released images.
How AI is helping astronomers
By Chris Impey, University of Arizona
AI is helping astronomers
The famous first image of a black hole just got two times sharper. A research team used artificial intelligence to dramatically improve upon its first image from 2019, which now shows the black hole at the center of the M87 galaxy as darker and bigger than the first image depicted.
I’m an astronomer who studies and has written about cosmology, black holes and exoplanets. Astronomers have been using AI for decades. In fact, in 1990, astronomers from the University of Arizona, where I am a professor, were among the first to use a type of AI called a neural network to study the shapes of galaxies.
Since then, AI has spread into every field of astronomy. As the technology has become more powerful, AI algorithms have begun helping astronomers tame massive data sets and discover new knowledge about the universe.
Better telescopes, more data
As long as astronomy has been a science, it has involved trying to make sense of the multitude of objects in the night sky. That was relatively simple when the only tools were the unaided eye or a simple telescope, and all that we could see were a few thousand stars and a handful of planets.
A hundred years ago, Edwin Hubble used newly built telescopes to show that the universe teems with not just stars and clouds of gas, but countless galaxies. As telescopes have continued to improve, the sheer number of celestial objects humans can see and the amount of data astronomers need to sort through have both grown exponentially, too.
For example, the soon-to-be-completed Vera Rubin Observatory in Chile will make images so large that it would take 1,500 high-definition TV screens to view each one in its entirety. Over 10 years it is expected to generate 0.5 exabytes of data – about 50,000 times the amount of information held in all of the books contained within the Library of Congress.
There are 20 telescopes with mirrors larger than 20 feet (6 meters) in diameter. AI algorithms are the only way astronomers could ever hope to work through all of the data available to them today. There are a number of ways AI is proving useful in processing this data.
Picking out patterns
Astronomy often involves looking for needles in a haystack. About 99% of the pixels in an astronomical image contain background radiation, light from other sources or the blackness of space. Only 1% have the subtle shapes of faint galaxies.
AI algorithms – in particular, neural networks that use many interconnected nodes and learn to recognize patterns – are perfectly suited for picking out the patterns of galaxies. Astronomers began using neural networks to classify galaxies in the early 2010s. Now the algorithms are so effective that they can classify galaxies with an accuracy of 98%.
We’ve seen this in other areas of astronomy. Astronomers working on SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, use radio telescopes to look for signals from distant civilizations. Early on, radio astronomers scanned charts by eye to look for unexplained anomalies. More recently, researchers harnessed 150,000 personal computers and 1.8 million citizen scientists to look for artificial radio signals. Now, researchers are using AI to sift through reams of data much more quickly and thoroughly than people can. This has allowed SETI efforts to cover more ground while also greatly reducing the number of false positive signals.
Another example is the search for exoplanets. Astronomers discovered most of the 5,300 known exoplanets by measuring a dip in the amount of light coming from a star when a planet passes in front of it. AI tools can now pick out the signs of an exoplanet with 96% accuracy.
Making new discoveries
AI has proved itself to be excellent at identifying known objects – like galaxies or exoplanets – that astronomers tell it to look for. But it is also quite powerful at finding objects or phenomena that are theorized but have not yet been discovered in the real world.
Teams have used this approach to detect new exoplanets, learn about the ancestral stars that led to the formation and growth of the Milky Way, and predict the signatures of new types of gravitational waves.
To do this, astronomers first use AI to convert theoretical models into observational signatures, including realistic levels of noise. Then they use machine learning to sharpen the ability of AI to detect the predicted phenomena.
Finally, radio astronomers have also been using AI algorithms to sift through signals that don’t correspond to known phenomena. Recently a team from South Africa found a unique object that may be a remnant of the explosive merging of two supermassive black holes. If this proves to be true, the data will allow a new test of general relativity: Albert Einstein’s description of space-time.
Making predictions and plugging holes
As in many areas of life recently, generative AI and large language models like ChatGPT are also making waves in the astronomy world.
The team that created the first image of a black hole in 2019 used a generative AI to produce its new image. To do so, it first taught an AI how to recognize black holes by feeding it simulations of many kinds of black holes. Then, the team used the AI model it had built to fill in gaps in the massive amount of data collected by the radio telescopes on the black hole M87.
Using this simulated data, the team was able to create a new image that is two times sharper than the original and is fully consistent with the predictions of general relativity.
Astronomers are also turning to AI to help tame the complexity of modern research. A team from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics created a language model called astroBERT to read and organize 15 million scientific papers on astronomy. Another team, based at NASA, has even proposed using AI to prioritize astronomy projects, a process that astronomers engage in every 10 years.
As AI has progressed, it has become an essential tool for astronomers. As telescopes get better, as data sets get larger and as AIs continue to improve, it is likely that this technology will play a central role in future discoveries about the universe.
Chris Impey, University Distinguished Professor of Astronomy, University of Arizona
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Bottom line: AI is helping astronomers process the staggering amounts of data they receive from observatories. It’s even making new discoveries based on theoretical objects.
Largest cosmic explosion ever seen is still ongoing
Largest cosmic explosion ever seen
On May 11, 2023, the Royal Astronomical Society said that astronomers have found the largest cosmic explosion ever seen. The explosion, dubbed AT2021lwx, has lasted for more than three years. That’s in contrast to an ordinary supernova – or exploding star – which might be bright for only a few months. Plus, AT2021lwx appears to shine 10 times more brightly than any known supernova. The gargantuan explosion is thought to be the result of a black hole ripping apart a cloud of gas that’s thousands of times larger than our sun. AT2021lwx is believed to lie 8 billion light-years away in the direction of the constellation Vulpecula the Fox. The universe is thought to have been around 6 billion years old when AT2021lwx erupted into violence.
The team of astronomers, led by the University of Southampton, published their peer-reviewed study in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society on April 11, 2023.
Discovery of the largest cosmic explosion
The astronomers first found the explosion in 2020 data from the Zwicky Transient Facility in California. Next, the Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS) based in Hawaii picked up the explosion. Then the team observed the explosion with three more telescopes: the Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory in space, the New Technology Telescope in Chile, and the Gran Telescopio Canarias in La Palma, Spain.
Lead author Philip Wiseman of the University of Southampton explained:
We came upon this by chance, as it was flagged by our search algorithm when we were searching for a type of supernova. Most supernovas and tidal disruption events only last for a couple of months before fading away. For something to be bright for two plus years was immediately very unusual.
Team member Sebastian Hönig of the University of Southampton explained how the team realized it was special:
Once you know the distance to the object and how bright it appears to us, you can calculate the brightness of the object at its source. Once we’d performed those calculations, we realized this is extremely bright.
What is AT2021lwx?
AT2021lwx is the largest explosion astronomers have yet seen. They believe it was the result of a large cloud of gas interacting with a black hole. The press release said:
Fragments of the cloud would have been swallowed up, sending shockwaves through its remnants, as well as into a large dusty doughnut-shaped formation surrounding the black hole.
This is the first time astronomers have seen this kind of explosion on such a massive scale. For comparison, in 2022 astronomers saw the brightest gamma-ray burst on record. Its brightness outshone AT2021lwx, but for just a fraction of time. AT2021lwx’s ongoing explosion means it has much higher energy overall. The scientists said that the physical explosion is about 100 times larger than our solar system. The explosion peaked at about 2 trillion times brighter than our sun.
The closest comparison to objects this bright in the universe are quasars. Quasars are supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies feeding on accretion disks.
Team member Mark Sullivan, also of the University of Southampton, explained the difference between quasars and the newly discovered explosion:
With a quasar, we see the brightness flickering up and down over time. But looking back over a decade there was no detection of AT2021lwx, then it suddenly appeared as one of the most luminous things in the universe, which is unprecedented.
The future of the research
The team is still gathering more data on the explosion. They want to learn about AT2021lwx in different wavelengths, including X-rays. The X-ray data could help them understand the temperature of the explosion and what might be happening on the surface. Wiseman said:
With new facilities, like the Vera Rubin Observatory’s Legacy Survey of Space and Time, coming online in the next few years, we are hoping to discover more events like this and learn more about them. It could be that these events, although extremely rare, are so energetic that they are key parts of how the centers of galaxies change over time.
Bottom line: Astronomers have found the largest cosmic explosion yet seen. They believe it comes from a cloud of dust around a black hole that was 10 times brighter than any supernova. So far, the explosion has lasted more than 3 years.
Source: Multiwavelength observations of the extraordinary accretion event AT2021lwx
Via Royal Astronomical Society
Largest Explosion Ever Seen is Captured by Astronomers: Nothing on this Scale Witnessed Before
The largest explosion ever seen has been captured by astronomers—more than 10 times brighter than any known supernova, and 3 times brighter than the most radiant tidal disruption event, where a star falls into a black hole.
The explosion, known as AT2021lwx, was detected in 2020 in Hawai’i and California and has currently lasted over three years. For a frame of reference, supernovae are only visible for a few months.
“We came upon this by chance,” explains study author Dr. Phillip Wiseman, “as it was flagged by our search algorithm when we were searching for a type of supernova.”
It took place nearly eight billion light years away when the universe was around six billion years old—less than half its current age of 13.7 billion years.
“Most supernovae and tidal disruption events only last for a couple of months before fading away. For something to be bright for two-plus years was immediately very unusual.”
It is believed the incredibly powerful boom was caused by a vast cloud of gas thousands of times larger than our sun, that fell into the jaws of a supermassive black hole.
Fragments of the cloud were swallowed up, sending shockwaves through its remnants that are still being detected today.
Such events are very rare, typified by the think dusty ring left behind in the aftermath, and nothing on this scale has been witnessed before.
The only other event of comparison, strangely enough, got spat out to the news media just a few months ago—a gamma-ray burst known as GRB 221009A. While this was brighter than AT2021lwx, it lasted for just a fraction of the time.
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Once the scientists calculated the distance of the explosion, they realized the overall energy released was far greater.
“Once you know the distance to the object and how bright it appears to us, you can calculate the brightness of the object at its source. Once we’d performed those calculations, we realized this is extremely bright.”
The only things in the universe that can match it are quasars, supermassive black holes with a constant flow of gas falling in at high velocity.
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“With a quasar, we see the brightness flickering up and down over time,” said co-author Professor Mark Sullivan. “But looking back over a decade there was no detection of AT2021lwx, then suddenly it appears with the brightness of the brightest things in the universe, which is unprecedented.”
The team is now setting out to collect more data on the explosion by measuring different wavelengths, including X-rays which could reveal the object’s surface and temperature, and what underlying processes were taking place.
“It could be that these events, although extremely rare, are so energetic that they are key processes to how the centers of galaxies change over time,” said Dr. Wiseman.
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Black Holes Chew Up Wayward Stars Like Messy ToddlersâTaking a Few Bites Before Flinging Leftovers Across the Galaxy
A research team that analyzed black holes determined they are a bit like a messy toddlers when they swallow up wayward stars—taking a few bites before flinging the leftovers across the galaxy.
The protracted and violent meals were unveiled in remarkable detail using computer simulations, because black holes are invisible—and their gravity is so strong that even light can’t escape.
“We obviously cannot observe black holes directly because they don’t emit light,” said lead author Fulya Kıroglu, a PhD student at Northwestern University in Illinois. “Instead, we have to look at the interactions between black holes and their environments.”
“We found that stars undergo multiple passages before being ejected. After each passage, they lose more mass, causing a flair of light as it’s ripped apart. Each flare is brighter than the last, creating a signature that might help astronomers find them.”
Finding black holes is important because they may be the source of a mysterious force known as dark energy. It has even been posited that they are tunnels between universes, a type of wormhole.
The findings apply to medium-sized black holes (between 100 to 10,000 solar masses), which are much harder to detect than their supermassive counterparts.
“Astrophysicists have uncovered evidence that they exist,” said Ms. Kiroglu. “But that evidence can often be explained by other mechanisms. For example, what appears to be an intermediate-mass black hole might actually be the accumulation of stellar-mass black holes.”
Her team developed new hydrodynamic models including a large star, which was sent towards it. Then they calculated the gravitational force acting on its particles during the approach.
They were able to calculate specifically which particle was bound to the star and which particle was disrupted, and flung loose.
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The study showed stars could orbit an intermediate-mass black hole as many as five times before finally being ejected. With each pass around, the star loses more and more of its mass as it’s ripped apart.
The black hole kicks the leftovers back out into the galaxy, moving at searing speeds.
The repeating pattern would create a stunning light show that should help astronomers recognize, and prove, the existence of intermediate-mass black holes.
“It’s amazing the star isn’t fully ripped apart,” she added. “Some stars get lucky and survive the event.
“The ejection speed is so high that these stars could be identified as hyper-velocity stars, which have been observed at the centers of galaxies.”
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She next plans to simulate giant and binary stars to explore their interactions with black holes.
Supermassive black holes are believed to power their galaxies—and one currently sits at the heart of the Milky Way.
The findings were presented at a virtual meeting of the American Physical Society.
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Black hole and its jet imaged together for 1st time
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We’ve all seen the incredible images of black holes, including the first direct images of these mysterious objects, first released in 2019. Now astronomers have obtained another first: an image showing both a supermassive black hole at the center of a distant galaxy, and its powerful jet. The massive black hole is in the center of galaxy Messier 87, which is 55 million light-years away. It’s the same black hole imaged initially by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) in 2019. An international group of astronomers released the new image on Wednesday, April 26, 2023.
The researchers published their associated peer-reviewed paper in Nature on the same day.
The Event Horizon Telescope took the previous images of this black hole. But this time, astronomers used multiple telescopes to obtain the new image: the Global mm-VLBI Array (GMVA), the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) and the Greenland Telescope (GLT). The European Southern Observatory (ESO) is a partner of ALMA.
The astronomers first conducted the observations in 2018. They have been combining the data from the multiple telescopes together since then.
A black hole and its powerful jet
This is the first time that astronomers have captured both a black hole and its jet – called a relativistic jet – in the same image. Scientists have long known that black holes can emit these huge jets. But how they form still isn’t well understood. Ionized matter within the jets moves at close to the speed of light. As lead author Ru-Sen Lu from the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory in China stated:
We know that jets are ejected from the region surrounding black holes. But we still do not fully understand how this actually happens. To study this directly we need to observe the origin of the jet as close as possible to the black hole. Thanks to ALMA’s location and sensitivity, we could reveal the black hole shadow and see deeper into the emission of the jet at the same time.
We think of black holes as powerful objects that suck in material that can never escape. Not even light can leave a black hole. That is basically true, but black holes can also have huge rings of matter – called accretion disks – that swirl around them. The new images show the base of a jet connected to the ring surrounding the black hole. Co-author Jae-Young Kim, from the Kyungpook National University in South Korea and the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Germany, said:
This new image completes the picture by showing the region around the black hole and the jet at the same time.
New image shows unprecedented detail
The new image shows details not previously seen together in any photos of black holes. You can clearly see the jet expelled from the black hole. You can also see the ring of material and the black hole’s shadow. The shadow is a two-dimensional dark zone caused by the strong gravity of the black hole. It is the pitch-black darkness in the center of the accretion disk, in the singularity region. A singularity itself, however, isn’t so much a place as it is a condition, where gravity is so intense that spacetime itself breaks down.
The material in the ring becomes heated as it orbits the black hole. As a result, it emits light. That is why we can see it, even though the black hole itself is black and invisible. We see the matter orbiting the black hole as a ring, because the gravity of the black hole bends the light. In the shadow region, however, nothing is visible at all.
Previously, the Event Horizon Telescope imaged the black hole at a wavelength of 1.3 mm. But now, the new network of telescopes was able to obtain an image at a longer wavelength of 3.5 mm. That allows more details to be seen. Thomas Krichbaum of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy said:
At this wavelength, we can see how the jet emerges from the ring of emission around the central supermassive black hole.
Larger accretion disk
The size of the accretion disk is also larger in the new image. It looks about 50% larger than it did in the previous Event Horizon Telescope image. The researchers say that is because the new image is simply able to resolve more of the material in the accretion disk. This also provides clues as to how the accretion disk formed. As Keiichi Asada from the Academia Sinica in Taiwan noted:
To understand the physical origin of the bigger and thicker ring, we had to use computer simulations to test different scenarios.
Future observations of the Messier 87 black hole
The researchers plan to use the same network of telescopes to keep observing the black hole. This should help astronomers better understand how the powerful jets originate. Eduardo Ros from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy said:
We plan to observe the region around the black hole at the center of M87 at different radio wavelengths to further study the emission of the jet. The coming years will be exciting, as we will be able to learn more about what happens near one of the most mysterious regions in the universe.
Bottom line: For the 1st time, astronomers have taken an image of a black hole that shows both the black hole and a powerful jet of material being blasted away from it.
Source: A ring-like accretion structure in M87 connecting its black hole and jet
Astronomers Solve the 60-Year Mystery of Quasars â the Most Powerful Objects in the Universe
Scientists have unlocked one of the biggest mysteries of quasars – the brightest, most powerful objects in the Universe – by discovering that they are ignited by galaxies colliding.
First discovered 60 years ago, quasars can shine as brightly as a trillion stars packed into a volume the size of our Solar System. In the decades since they were first observed, it has remained a mystery what could trigger such powerful activity. New work led by scientists at the Universities of Sheffield and Hertfordshire has now revealed that it is a consequence of galaxies crashing together.
The collisions were discovered when researchers, using deep imaging observations from the Isaac Newton Telescope in La Palma, observed the presence of distorted structures in the outer regions of the galaxies that are home to quasars.
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Most galaxies have supermassive black holes at their centers. They also contain substantial amounts of gas—but most of the time this gas is orbiting at large distances from the galaxy centers, out of reach of the black holes.
Collisions between galaxies drive the gas towards the black hole at the galaxy centre; just before the gas is consumed by the black hole, it releases extraordinary amounts of energy in the form of radiation, resulting in the characteristic quasar brilliance.
The ignition of a quasar can have dramatic consequences for entire galaxies – it can drive the rest of the gas out of the galaxy, which prevents it from forming new stars for billions of years into the future.
This is the first time that a sample of quasars of this size has been imaged with this level of sensitivity. By comparing observations of 48 quasars and their host galaxies with images of over 100 non-quasar galaxies, researchers concluded that galaxies hosting quasars are approximately three times as likely to be interacting or colliding with other galaxies.
The study published this week in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society has provided a significant step forward in our understanding of how these powerful objects are triggered and fueled.
Professor Clive Tadhunter, from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, said: “Quasars are one of the most extreme phenomena in the Universe, and what we see is likely to represent the future of our own Milky Way galaxy when it collides with the Andromeda galaxy in about five billion years.
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“It’s exciting to observe these events and finally understand why they occur – but thankfully Earth won’t be anywhere near one of these apocalyptic episodes for quite some time.”
Quasars are important to astrophysicists because, due to their brightness, they stand out at large distances and therefore act as beacons to the earliest epochs in the history of the Universe. Dr Jonny Pierce, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Hertfordshire, explains:
“It’s an area that scientists around the world are keen to learn more about – one of the main scientific motivations for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope was to study the earliest galaxies in the Universe, and Webb is capable of detecting light from even the most distant quasars, emitted nearly 13 billion years ago.
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“Quasars play a key role in our understanding of the history of the Universe, and possibly also the future of the Milky Way”.
(Source: University of Sheffield)
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