Astronomers have observed the effect of a remotely feeding black hole that spews huge amounts of energy and blows huge cosmic bubbles into its surrounding matter.
Observations of the galactic cluster MS0735 located 2.6 billion light-years away could reveal new information about the mysterious cavities or “radio bubbles” that surround the black hole and why they don’t just collapse like a balloon deflated under the pressure of their environment.
“We are witnessing one of the most energetic explosions ever seen from a supermassive black hole,” lead research author and McGill University physicist Jack Orlowski-Scherer said in a statement. statement (opens in a new tab). “That’s what happens when you power up a black hole and it violently spews out an enormous amount of energy.”
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Supermassive black holes are found at the core of most massive galaxies, including the Milky Way which hosts the supermassive black hole Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*) at its center.
These home galaxies and their supermassive black hole inhabitants are often found together in groups of hundreds or even thousands, gatherings called galactic clusters.
These clusters also harbor atmospheres that fill the space between galaxies with incredibly hot gas or plasma at temperatures up to about 90 million degrees Fahrenheit (50 million degrees Celsius). Although this plasma can cool over time and allow cold, dense gas to form and eventually collapse to give rise to new stars, black hole feeding can work against this process. .
Supermassive black holes can heat up this gas through violent explosions of matter. These outflows occur when some of this matter is not swallowed by the black hole but is instead pulled towards its poles from where it is expelled at near the speed of light. This process, known as “feedback”, quenches the formation of new stars, with the jets of material also carving cavities into the surrounding gas.
When this gas is pushed away from the center of galactic clusters, it is replaced by bubbles that emit radio waves.
Moving these huge volumes of gas in turn requires an enormous amount of energy, and astronomers have been scrambling to figure out where that energy is coming from in addition to finding out what’s left in these evacuated cavities.
To learn more about these gas bubbles in galactic clusters and the processes that create them, the team of astronomers, including Orlowski-Scherer, trained the Green Bank Telescope’s MUSTANG-2 receiver on the MS0735 cluster. The Green Bank Telescope observations were supplemented with X-ray data previously collected from MS0735 by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.
They also used a subtle distortion effect that fast-moving electrons in the hot cluster gas have on the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), a radiation field left behind by an event shortly after the Big Bang that uniformly fills the universe.
This effect on this cosmic radiation that was emitted 380,000 years after the beginning of the universe when the cosmos expanded and cooled enough to allow electrons to bond with protons creating the first atoms thus allowing photons to travel freely creating the “first light” is called the Sunyaev-Zeldovich (SZ) effect.
MUSTANG-2 makes its observations at 90 GHz, a frequency at which the SZ effect signal mainly represents thermal pressure.
“With the power of MUSTANG-2, we are able to see into these cavities and begin to determine precisely what they are filled with and why they don’t collapse under pressure,” said research collaborator Tony. and astronomer of the European Southern Observatory (ESO). Mroczkowski explained.
The team determined that at least some of the support that keeps the cavities from collapsing comes from things other than heat, these non-thermal sources including particles moving at near-light speed, charged particles at high speed called cosmic rays and turbulence. They also discovered that a small contribution comes from magnetic fields.
This implies that by mixing thermal and non-thermal sources, the pressure support in the radio bubbles around supermassive black holes is more nuanced than previously thought.
The team of astronomers now aims to observe the same system at different frequencies of electromagnetic radiation to see just how exotic the black hole’s exit is and gain deeper insight into the physics of galactic clusters.
“These new findings are the deepest high-fidelity SZ imaging to date of the thermodynamic state of cavities in a galaxy cluster,” added Tracy Clarke, research co-author and US Naval Research Laboratory astronomer. “We knew this was an exciting system when we studied the radio core and the low-frequency lobes, but we’re only now starting to see the full picture.”
The team’s research is published in the latest edition of the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics (opens in a new tab).
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