An extraordinary outburst produced by a black hole in a nearby galaxy has provided direct evidence for a population of old, volatile stellar black holes. The discovery, made by astronomers using data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, provides new insight into the nature of a mysterious class of black holes that can produce as much energy in X-rays as a million suns radiate at all wavelengths.

An extraordinary outburst produced by a black hole in a nearby galaxy has provided direct evidence for a population of old, volatile stellar black holes. The discovery, made by astronomers using data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, provides new insight into the nature of a mysterious class of black holes that can produce as much energy in X-rays as a million suns radiate at all wavelengths.

Photo by: NASA/CXC/Curtin University/R. Soria et al.

NASA/CXC/Curtin University/R. Soria et al.

A Galaxy’s Love-Hate Relationship with Black Holes

You all have that person in your life. One minute they have you in stitches. The next they’re driving you nuts. You want to let go of this person but you just can’t…and the next day, you wish you never had the thought.

You’re not alone, and what happens at the human level also happens at the cosmic level.

February 10, 2022

At the center of the Milky Way galaxy sits a giant black hole. And I mean giant – it’s at least four million times the mass of our sun. And while that still makes it less than 1% of the entire mass of the galaxy, it’s still the single largest object around. And it has a temper.

Occasionally material, or a wandering star, gets too close to that giant monster. And the gravitational pull near a huge black hole is…well, extreme. Extreme enough to rip that material or star to shreds. That process releases a lot of energy, usually in the form of a huge blast of radiation.

We can see evidence of this process in the wreckage surrounding our galaxy’s black hole. They’re called the Fermi Bubbles, and they are two vast regions of super-heated plasma extending thousands of light-years above and below the plane of the Milky Way. It’s the leftover belch from a meal consumed millions of years ago.

This is a composite of view of X-rays and warm ionized gas near the galactic center. The graphic of a translucent, vertical white fan is added to show the suggested axis of a mini-jet from the supermassive black hole at the galaxy’s heart. The orange colored features are of glowing hydrogen gas. One such feature, at the top tip of the jet is interpreted at a hydrogen cloud that has been hit by the outflowing jet. The jet scatters off the cloud into tendrils that flow northward. Farther down near the black hole are X-ray observations of superheated gas colored green and blue. These date are circumstantial evidence that the black hole occasionally accretes stars or gas clouds, and ejects some of the superheated material along its spin axis.

MINI-JET FOUND NEAR MILKY WAY’S SUPERMASSIVE BLACK HOLE

The graphic of a translucent, vertical white fan is added to show the suggested axis of a mini-jet from the supermassive black hole at the galaxy’s heart. Farther down near the black hole are X-ray observations of superheated gas colored green and blue. These dates are circumstantial evidence that the black hole occasionally accretes stars or gas clouds, and ejects some of the superheated material along its spin axis.

Photo by: NASA, ESA, and Gerald Cecil (UNC-Chapel Hill)

NASA, ESA, and Gerald Cecil (UNC-Chapel Hill)

The graphic of a translucent, vertical white fan is added to show the suggested axis of a mini-jet from the supermassive black hole at the galaxy’s heart. Farther down near the black hole are X-ray observations of superheated gas colored green and blue. These dates are circumstantial evidence that the black hole occasionally accretes stars or gas clouds, and ejects some of the superheated material along its spin axis.

Normally, you would think all this high-energy activity would be a bad thing. In many cases, you’d be right. If the Earth were situated much closer to the galactic center, we’d be cooked to a crisp from all the radiation. Thankfully, the giant black hole is safely tucked 25,000 light-years away.

All these bursts also disrupt star formation, which is an activity that galaxies really enjoy doing. To make stars, you need to take massive clumps of matter and collapse them down into tiny volumes. But in order to do that, you need to make the gas cold, otherwise, it will simply refuse to budge. This process happens normally all throughout the galaxy, but in the center, it can go haywire. When the black hole is angry, it dumps too much energy into its surroundings, preventing the formation of new stars.

At the center of spiral galaxy M81 is a supermassive black hole about 70 million times more massive than our sun.  A study using data from Chandra and ground-based telescopes, combined with detailed theoretical models, shows that the supermassive black hole in M81 feeds just like stellar mass black holes, with masses of only about ten times that of the sun. This discovery supports Einstein's relativity theory that states black holes of all sizes have similar properties.

At the center of spiral galaxy M81 is a supermassive black hole about 70 million times more massive than our sun.

Photo by: NASA/CXC/Wisconsin/D.Pooley & CfA/A.Zezas

NASA/CXC/Wisconsin/D.Pooley & CfA/A.Zezas

At the center of spiral galaxy M81 is a supermassive black hole about 70 million times more massive than our sun.

But…that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Left to their own devices, galaxies may tend to make stars a little too quickly. There’s only so much matter in any single galaxy, which limits how many total stars it can create in its lifetime. If it makes stars too fast, it will run out of material, and eventually, fade from the cosmic scene.

That nasty and temperamental black hole, however, can regulate star formation, keeping it to a slow and steady pace instead of a one-and-done affair. This allows galaxies like the Milky Way to keep forming stars for billions, even trillions, of years.

A composite Chandra X-ray (blue/green) and Hubble optical (red) image of NGC 1068 shows hot gas blowing away from a central supermassive black hole at speeds averaging about 1 million miles per hour. The elongated shape of the gas cloud is thought to be due to the funneling effect of a torus, or doughnut-shaped cloud, of cool gas and dust that surrounds the black hole. The X-rays are scattered and reflected X-rays that are probably coming from a hidden disk of hot gas formed as matter swirls very near the black hole. Regions of intense star formation in the inner spiral arms of the galaxy are highlighted by the optical emission.

Wind and Reflections from a Black Hole

A composite Chandra X-ray (blue/green) and Hubble optical (red) image of NGC 1068 shows hot gas blowing away from a central supermassive black hole at speeds averaging about 1 million miles per hour. The elongated shape of the gas cloud is thought to be due to the funneling effect of a torus, or doughnut-shaped cloud, of cool gas and dust that surrounds the black hole.

Photo by: NASA/CXC/MIT/UCSB/P.Ogle et al.

NASA/CXC/MIT/UCSB/P.Ogle et al.

A composite Chandra X-ray (blue/green) and Hubble optical (red) image of NGC 1068 shows hot gas blowing away from a central supermassive black hole at speeds averaging about 1 million miles per hour. The elongated shape of the gas cloud is thought to be due to the funneling effect of a torus, or doughnut-shaped cloud, of cool gas and dust that surrounds the black hole.

So I would say that the relationship status between galaxies and black holes is…complicated.

Dive Deeper into the Cosmos

Journey Through the Cosmos in an All-New Season of How the Universe Works

The new season premieres on Science Channel and streams on discovery+.

Paul M. Sutter

Paul M. Sutter is an astrophysicist at Stony Brook University and the Flatiron Institute, host of Ask a Spaceman and Space Radio, and author of How to Die in Space.

Next Up

How to Make a Neutron Star at Home

First, take a bunch of matter. It doesn’t matter what kind – a piece of paper, some leftover gum. Then, press it, and press it, and press it some more. Don’t stop now! We’ve got a long way to go.

There’s a Hole in Our Galaxy

Folks, we just found a 500-lightyear-wide hole in our galaxy. Fess up: which one of you did it?

What Happens When Stars Kiss (Hint: They Explode)

You know that feeling--They close their eyes, purse their lips, and lean in. So you go for it. You feel the spark, the magic, and the fire of that first kiss. It’s one of the best things in the Universe.Except, of course, if you’re a star.

Why NASA’s New Super-Telescope Can’t See Visible Light

Even though NASA’s latest flagship instrument, the James Webb Space Telescope, is touted as the successor to the venerable Hubble, it has one major difference.

The Perseid Meteor Shower Reaches its Peak

Stargazers rejoice! The annual Perseid meteor shower is upon us. Here's what you need to know...(updated August 11, 2022)

You Love Supernova, So How About Micronova?

In space, even the smallest explosions are insanely powerful. Take for instance the newly discovered “micronova,” which sounds cute and cuddly and not at all deadly…except for the fact that it’s the explosive equivalent of a nuclear bomb a million times bigger than Mount Everest.

How Astronomers Use a Trick of Gravity to See the Most Distant Objects in the Universe

Let’s say you’re an astronomer (work with me here) and you want to take a picture of something incredibly, deeply far away. You know, the typical business of astronomy.

What We’ve Already Learned From James Webb? (Hint: it’s a lot)

That was worth the wait. Just a quick handful of months since its historic launch on Christmas Day, the James Webb Space Telescope has flown to its observing position, unfolded its delicate instruments and ultra-sized mirror, and run through a suite of checks and alignments and calibrations. The team at NASA behind the telescopes released their first batch of images from the science runs, and besides being gorgeous, they're powerful.

A Guide to this August’s Best Astronomy Attractions

Learn more about the exciting things happening in the night sky this month! From the rings of Saturn to the most popular meteor shower of the year, August 2022 has us stargazing all month.

Astronomers May Have Found a Rare “Free-Floating” Black Hole

How do you see a perfectly black object in the middle of a pitch-dark night? It sounds like the start of an annoying riddle, but it’s really the question faced by astronomers when they want to search for black holes.

Related To: