Astronomers have obtained direct observational evidence for the first time of a supermassive black hole, at the center of a large galaxy, powering huge molecular outflows from deep inside the galaxy’s core removing massive quantities of star-making gas thereby influencing the size, shape and overall fate of the host galaxy.
The galaxy highlighted in the study, published March 26th, 2015 in the journal Nature, known as IRAS F11119+3257, has an actively growing supermassive black hole at its centre. This means that, unlike the large black hole at the centre of our own Milky Way galaxy, this black hole is actively consuming large amounts of gas. As material enters the black hole, it creates friction, which in turn gives off electromagnetic radiation—including X-rays and visible light.
“This is the first time that we have seen a supermassive black hole in action, blowing away the galaxy’s reservoir of star-making gas,” said research leader, Francesco Tombesi, from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
Black holes that fit this description are called active galactic nuclei (AGN). The study found that these AGN winds are powerful enough to drive the large molecular outflows that reach to the edges of the galaxy’s borders.
Although theorists have suspected a connection between AGN winds and molecular outflows before, the current study is the first to confirm this link.
“This study indicates that when we think about galaxies and super massive black holes, we are in some ways thinking of the same thing,” Tombesi said, “One goes with the other — almost like an atom with electrons around it. You can’t consider one without the other.”
This isn’t exactly shocking news, and other researchers have theorized that black holes might hold this influence over galaxies for some time. But Tombesi’s team is the first to actually observe the wind caused by the black hole at the same time as the galaxy’s outpouring of gas.
It spotted the phenomenon by turning Suzaku, a satellite operated by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and NASA, towards the chaotic galaxy IRAS F11119+3257.
In early 2016, JAXA and NASA are scheduled to launch ASTRO-H, a successor satellite to Suzaku, and instruments aboard this probe will make it possible to study more galaxies like IRAS F11119+3257 in greater detail.
“These are not like normal spiral or elliptical galaxies. They’re like train wrecks,” said study co-author Sylvain Veilleux, at the University of Maryland, College Park. “Two galaxies collided with each other, and it’s now a single object. This train wreck provided all the material to feed the supermassive black hole that is now driving the huge galactic-scale outflow.”
The study was financed by NASA, the US National Science Foundation, Spain’s Ministerio de Economía y Competitividad, and the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council. The findings are published in the journal Nature.