Nav: Home

Galaxy-scale fountain seen in full glory

November 06, 2018

A billion light-years from Earth lies one of the universe's most massive structures, a giant elliptical galaxy surrounded by a sprawling cluster of other galaxies known as Abell 2597. At the core of the central galaxy, a supermassive black hole is powering the cosmic equivalent of a monumental fountain, drawing in vast stores of cold molecular gas and spraying them back out again in an ongoing cycle.

Astronomers have long theorized that fountains such as this continually recirculate a galaxy's star-forming fuel. New Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) observations of Abell 2597 show the first clear and compelling evidence for the simultaneous infalling and outflow of gas driven by a supermassive black hole. The researchers report their observations in the latest issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

"The supermassive black hole at the center of this giant galaxy acts like a mechanical 'pump' in a water fountain," said Grant Tremblay, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and lead author on the paper. "This is one of the first systems in which we find clear evidence for both cold molecular gas inflow toward the black hole and outflow or uplift from the jets that the black hole launches."

According to the researchers, this entire system operates via a self-regulating feedback loop. The infalling material provides power for the fountain as it "drains" toward the central black hole, like water entering the pump of a fountain. This infalling gas then causes the black hole to ignite with activity, launching high-velocity jets of super-heated material that shoot out of the galaxy. As it travels, this material pushes out clumps and streamers of gas into the galaxy's expansive halo, where it eventually rains back in on the black hole, triggering the entire process anew.

In total, about three billion solar masses of molecular gas is part of this fountain, forming a filamentary nebula that spans the innermost 100,000 light-years of the galaxy.

In an earlier study by the same authors published in the journal Nature, the researchers were able to verify the interconnection between the black hole and the galactic fountain by observing the region across a range of wavelengths, or portions of the spectrum. By studying the location and motion of molecules of carbon monoxide (CO) with ALMA, which shine brightly in millimeter-wavelength light, the researchers could measure the motion of the gas as it falls in toward the black hole.

Earlier data from the Multi-Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) on ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT) revealed warm, ionized gas being expelled from the galaxy - essentially the plume of the fountain. The new ALMA observations found clumps of cold, molecular gas in precisely the same locations as the warm gas seen in the earlier observations.

"The unique aspect here is a very detailed coupled analysis of the source using data from ALMA and the MUSE instrument. The two facilities make for an incredibly powerful combination," said Tremblay. "ALMA revealed the distribution and motions of the cold molecular gas clouds, and MUSE did the same for the warm ionized gas."

The ALMA and MUSE data were combined with a new, ultra-deep observation of the cluster by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, revealing the hot phase of this fountain in exquisite detail, noted the researchers.

The observations also very convincingly support the hypothesis that the warm ionized and cold molecular nebulas are one-in-the-same, with the warm ionized gas merely being the "shell" around the cold molecular cores that churn within this galaxy-scale fountain.

This multiwavelength approach offers an uncommonly complete picture of this system. "It's like observing the rain cloud, rain, and puddle all at the same time," noted Tremblay. While this is just one observation of one galaxy, the astronomers speculate that they may be observing a process that is common in galaxies and fundamental to their evolution.
-end-
The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) of Japan in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA is funded by ESO on behalf of its Member States, by NSF in cooperation with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) in Taiwan and by NINS in cooperation with the Academia Sinica (AS) in Taiwan and the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute (KASI).

ALMA construction and operations are led by ESO on behalf of its Member States; by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), managed by Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI), on behalf of North America; and by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) on behalf of East Asia. The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA.

National Radio Astronomy Observatory

Related Black Hole Articles:

Scientists make waves with black hole research
Scientists at the University of Nottingham have made a significant leap forward in understanding the workings of one of the mysteries of the universe.
Collapsing star gives birth to a black hole
Astronomers have watched as a massive, dying star was likely reborn as a black hole.
When helium behaves like a black hole
A team of scientists has discovered that a law controlling the bizarre behavior of black holes out in space -- is also true for cold helium atoms that can be studied in laboratories.
Star in closest orbit ever seen around black hole
Astronomers have found evidence of a star that whips around a likely black hole twice an hour.
Tail of stray black hole hiding in the Milky Way
By analyzing the gas motion of an extraordinarily fast-moving cosmic cloud in a corner of the Milky Way, Astronomers found hints of a wandering black hole hidden in the cloud.
Hubble gazes into a black hole of puzzling lightness
The beautiful spiral galaxy visible in the center of the image is known as RX J1140.1+0307, a galaxy in the Virgo constellation imaged by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, and it presents an interesting puzzle.
Clandestine black hole may represent new population
Astronomers have combined data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope and the National Science Foundation's Karl G.
When will a neutron star collapse to a black hole?
Astrophysicists from Goethe-University Frankfurt have found a simple formula for the maximum mass of a rotating neutron star and hence answered a question that had been open for decades.
Behemoth black hole found in an unlikely place
Astronomers have uncovered a near-record breaking supermassive black hole, weighing 17 billion suns, in an unlikely place: in the center of a galaxy in a sparsely populated area of the universe.
Behemoth black hole found in an unlikely place
Astronomers have uncovered one of the biggest supermassive black holes, with the mass of 17 billion Suns, in an unlikely place: the centre of a galaxy that lies in a quiet backwater of the Universe.

Related Black Hole Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Climate Crisis
There's no greater threat to humanity than climate change. What can we do to stop the worst consequences? This hour, TED speakers explore how we can save our planet and whether we can do it in time. Guests include climate activist Greta Thunberg, chemical engineer Jennifer Wilcox, research scientist Sean Davis, food innovator Bruce Friedrich, and psychologist Per Espen Stoknes.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#527 Honey I CRISPR'd the Kids
This week we're coming to you from Awesome Con in Washington, D.C. There, host Bethany Brookshire led a panel of three amazing guests to talk about the promise and perils of CRISPR, and what happens now that CRISPR babies have (maybe?) been born. Featuring science writer Tina Saey, molecular biologist Anne Simon, and bioethicist Alan Regenberg. A Nobel Prize winner argues banning CRISPR babies won’t work Geneticists push for a 5-year global ban on gene-edited babies A CRISPR spin-off causes unintended typos in DNA News of the first gene-edited babies ignited a firestorm The researcher who created CRISPR twins defends...