Dancing around the Black Hole

August 14, 2001

ISAAC finds "cool" young stellar systems at the centres of active galaxies

Supermassive Black Holes are present at the centres of many galaxies, some weighing hundreds of millions times more than the Sun. These extremely dense objects cannot be observed directly, but violently moving gas clouds and stars in their strong gravitational fields are responsible for the emission of energetic radiation from such "active galaxy nuclei" (AGN).

A heavy Black Hole feeds agressively on its surroundings. When the neighbouring gas and stars finally spiral into the Black Hole, a substantial fraction of the infalling mass is transformed into pure energy. However, it is not yet well understood how, long before this dramatic event takes place, all that material is moved from the outer regions of the galaxy towards the central region.

So how is the food for the central Black Hole delivered to the table in the first place? To cast more light on this central question, a team of French and Swiss astronomers has carried out a series of trailblazing observations with the VLT Infrared Spectrometer And Array Camera (ISAAC) on the VLT 8.2-m ANTU telescope at the ESO Paranal Observatory.

The ISAAC instrument is particularly well suited to this type of observations. Visible light cannot penetrate the thick clouds of dust and gas in the innermost regions of active galaxies, but by recording the infrared light from the stars close to the Black Hole, their motions can be studied. By charting those motions in the central regions of three active galaxies (NGC 1097, NGC 1808 and NGC 5728), the astronomers were able to confirm the presence of "nuclear bars" in all three. These are dynamical structures that "open a road" for the flow of material towards the innermost region.

Moreover, the team was surprised to discover signs of a young stellar population near the centres of these galaxies - stars that have apparently formed quite recently in a central gas disk. Such a system is unstable, however, and will soon disrupt. At some moment, many of those young stars may get too close to the monster in the centre and suffer an unhappy fate...
The full text of this Press Release (ESO PR 18/01), with 6 photos and all weblinks, is available at:



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