Virginia Tech scientists discover record-breaking black hole energy blast

November 28, 2012

Virginia Tech physics researchers have discovered a quasar with the most energetic outflow ever, a finding that may answer questions about how the mass of a galaxy is linked to its central black hole mass and why there are so few large galaxies in the universe.

Researchers studied the quasar known as SDSS J1106+1939 in great detail using the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope in Paranal, Chile - the world's most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory, and found the most energetic quasar outflow ever discovered.

The rate that energy is carried away by the huge mass of material ejected is equivalent to two trillion times the power output of the sun.

"This is about 100 times higher than the total power output of the Milky Way galaxy -- it's a real monster outflow," said Nahum Arav, an associate professor of physics in College of Science and leader of the research team, which includes Benoit Borguet, now a postdoctoral researcher now at the University of Liege, Belgium; Doug Edmonds and Carter Chamberlain, both graduate research assistants at Virginia Tech, and Chris Benn, a collaborator who works with the Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes in Spain.

The findings were released today (Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012) by the European Southern Observatory.

Theorists have predicted energy flows of this magnitude, and simulations have suggested these outflows impact the galaxies around them, but it has all been speculation -- until now.

"For the last 15 years many theorists have said that if there were such powerful outflows it would help answer many questions on the formation of galaxies, on the behavior of black holes, and on the enrichment of the intergalactic medium with elements other than hydrogen and helium," Arav said. "This discovery means we can better explain the formation of galaxies. There are hundreds of people doing the theoretical side of the work. They hypothesize outflows in their simulations, and now we've found an outflow in the magnitude that has only been theorized in the past. Now they can refine their already impressive models and base them on empirical data."

Quasars are light phenomenon produced as material falls into a black hole producing a huge amount of energy. The bigger the black hole, the bigger the quasar. The Milky Way, according to Arav, is a big galaxy with a "smallish" black hole. The black hole at the heart of quasar SDSS J1106-1939 is massive, estimated to be a thousand times heavier than the black hole in the Milky Way.

And while black holes are noted for pulling material in, quasars accelerate some of the material and eject it at high speed. The larger the quasar, the more material it can take, the higher speed it can accelerate it, and the further it can eject the material.

"Quasars have been known for 40 years," Arav explained. "We were able to figure out how to measure the mass of mechanical energy the black hole is putting out - by calculating the size of the outflow, how far away from the black hole it was, and how much mass it had per unit area."

The quasar's outflow is at least five times more powerful than the previous record holder, also discovered by Arav and his research group in 2009, and material from the outflow is inferred to be about a thousand light years away from the black hole at the heart of quasar SDSS J1106-1939.

Every year, according to the team's analysis, a mass of more than 400 times that of the sun is streaming away from the quasar at a speed of 8,000 kilometers per second.

"I've been looking for something like this for a decade," Arav said, "so it's thrilling to finally find one of the monster outflows that have been predicted."
-end-
The European Southern Observatory contributed information to this report.

The study was supported from NASA STScI grants GO 11686 and GO 12022 as well as NSF grant AST 0837880.

Virginia Tech

Related Black Hole Articles from Brightsurf:

Black hole or no black hole: On the outcome of neutron star collisions
A new study lead by GSI scientists and international colleagues investigates black-hole formation in neutron star mergers.

The black hole always chirps twice: New clues deciphering the shape of black holes
A team of gravitational-wave scientists led by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav) reveal that when two black holes collide and merge, the remnant black hole 'chirps' not once, but multiple times, emitting gravitational waves--intense ripples in the fabric space and time--that inform us about its shape.

Wobbling shadow of the M87 black hole
New analysis from the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) Collaboration reveals the behavior of the supermassive black hole in the center of the M87 galaxy across multiple years, indicating the crescent-like shadow feature appears to be wobbling.

How to have a blast like a black hole
Scientists at Osaka University have created magnetized-plasma conditions similar to those near a black hole using very intense laser pulses.

Black hole collision may have exploded with light
Astronomers have seen what appears to the first light ever detected from a black hole merger.

Black hole's heart still beating
The first confirmed heartbeat of a supermassive black hole is still going strong more than ten years after first being observed.

Black hole team discovers path to razor-sharp black hole images
A team of researchers have published new calculations that predict a striking and intricate substructure within black hole images from extreme gravitational light bending.

Planets around a black hole?
Theoreticians in two different fields defied the common knowledge that planets orbit stars like the Sun.

Black hole mergers: Cooking with gas
Gravitational wave detectors are finding black hole mergers in the universe at the rate of one per week.

Going against the flow around a supermassive black hole
At the center of a galaxy called NGC 1068, a supermassive black hole hides within a thick doughnut-shaped cloud of dust and gas.

Read More: Black Hole News and Black Hole Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.