How fuel-hungry supermassive black holes feed on intergalactic gas

Fuel-hungry supermassive black holes feed on intergalactic gas

Two interacting galaxies shown by the Hubble Space Telescope. Image credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team

Research conducted by the University of Southampton has revealed how supermassive black holes (SMBHs) feed off gas clouds that reach them by traveling hundreds of thousands of light-years from one galaxy to another.

An international team of scientists has shown that there is a crucial link between the interaction of neighbors galaxies And the huge amount of gas needed to “feed” these gigantic, ultra-dense space phenomena. Their findings will be published in natural astronomy.

A black hole can be created when a star collapses, squeezing matter into a relatively small space. This increases the force of gravity so much that nothing can escape, not even light – hence the name.

Some black holes are gigantic, millions of times more massive than our sun, and they emit huge amounts of energy. These are known as “supermassive black holesAnd how exactly they are formed or gain enough fuel to power themselves remains a mystery.

Astrophysicist and principal investigator from the University of Southampton, Dr Sandra Raimundo, says, “Supermassive black holes fuel their activity in part by the gradual accretion of gases from their surrounding environment. Supermassive black holes can make the centers of galaxies shine very brightly when they capture gas and this process is thought to be “They can have a significant impact on the way galaxies look today. How SMBHs obtain enough fuel to keep them active and growing continues to baffle astronomers, but our work provides a step toward understanding this.”

The Southampton scientist, working with researchers at the Universities of Copenhagen and the Universities of California, used data from the 4-meter Anglo-Australian Telescope in New South Wales, Australia, to study the orbits of gas and stars in a large sample of more than 3,000 galaxies. They identified those with what is known as “skewed” gas—in other words, gas that rotates in a different direction than the stars in the galaxy, suggesting a past galactic interaction. Then they found that galaxies with deflected gas had a higher proportion of active supermassive black holes.

The results showed a clear link between deviant gas and supermassive black hole activity – suggesting that gas travels where two galaxies meet, zigzagging vast distances through space and then succumbing to the supermassive black hole’s massive gravitational forces – being sucked in and swallowed. A vital source of fuel. Astronomers have long suspected that a merger with another galaxy could provide this gas source, but direct evidence for this has been elusive.

Dr Raimundo explains: “Our work shows that the presence of deviating gas from stars is associated with an increase in the fraction of active supermassive black holes. Because deviating gas is a clear sign of a past interaction between two galaxies, our work shows that the interactions of galaxies provide the fuel for powering black holes.” supermassive actives.

“This is the first time that a direct connection It has been observed between the formation and presence of deviant gas and the fueling of active supermassive black holes.”

“What’s exciting about these observations is that we can now, for the first time, identify the gas that was captured and trace it all the way back to the center where the black hole is gobbling up,” says study co-author Dr. Marianne Vestergaard.

The scientists now hope to expand the scope of their research and use their findings to calculate the total mass of the supermassive black holes It originated from this mechanism and how important it was in the early universe.

more information:
Sandra Raimundo, Increase in black hole activity in galaxies with gas-kinetic alignment, natural astronomy (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s41550-022-01880-z.

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