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Supermassive black holes are very messy eaters

In the quest to understand the immense and complex universe that surrounds us, one of the most elusive subjects has been the formation and growth of supermassive black holes.

Nestled at the heart of many massive galaxies, these gargantuan cosmic entities have captivated astronomers and posed numerous questions about their nature and the mechanisms behind their evolution.

Supermassive black hole gas accretion

Previous research has pointed towards “gas accretion” as a pivotal process for the growth of supermassive black holes. This process involves the movement of gas from the host galaxy towards the black hole, gathering at high speeds due to the black hole’s intense gravitational pull.

The friction among gas particles in such scenarios heats the gas to millions of degrees. This causes the gas to emit a dazzling light, known as an active galactic nucleus (AGN).

Surprisingly, AGNs can become so bright that they outshine all the stars in their host galaxy combined. Yet, the intrigue deepens as some of the in-falling gas is thought to be expelled due to the AGN’s energy. This creates outflows in a seemingly contradictory process.

Close-up observations are challenging

Despite significant strides in theoretical and observational studies, comprehending gas accretion at the intimate scale of a few dozen light-years from the galactic center has remained a mystery.

The challenge lies in the minuscule spatial scale. This demands precise measurement of the accretion flow rate and the character of the gases ejected as outflows.

Now, however, an international team led by Takuma Izumi, an assistant professor at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, has accomplished a feat of cosmic proportions.

By employing the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), they have quantitatively measured gas flows and their structures across all phases (plasma, atomic, and molecular) within a few light-years of a supermassive black hole. This amazing feat revealed an unprecedented level of detail.

Accretion in a supermassive black hole

The subject of this groundbreaking observation was the Circinus Galaxy, housing a representative active galactic nucleus. The researchers achieved a stunning resolution of approximately one light-year. This is the highest resolution for observing multiphase gases near an AGN.

For the first time, the team successfully captured the accretion flow within the high-density gas disk around the supermassive black hole. The identification of this flow was a challenging endeavor due to the small region’s scale and the gas’s intricate movements. High-resolution ALMA observations allowed the team to detect molecular gas absorbing the AGN’s light. This indicates an accretion flow towards the nucleus.

Understanding accretion

Further analysis unveiled the mechanism inducing the accretion: a phenomenon known as “gravitational instability.” The gas disk, overwhelmed by its gravitational force, collapses and funnels gas towards the black hole. This process is now clearly visualized by ALMA’s observations.

The study also enhanced our quantitative understanding of gas flows around the AGN. The observed accretion rate was found to be 30 times higher than necessary to maintain the AGN’s activity. This discovery posed a question: where was the surplus gas going?

Cosmic gas fountain

The answer laid in the high-sensitivity ALMA observations that detected outflows. It revealed that most of the gas was expelled as slow-moving atomic or molecular outflows. These outflows then fell back to the gas disk, recycled into an accretion flow in a cycle reminiscent of a fountain.

Takuma Izumi hails these findings as “monumental achievements in the history of supermassive black hole research,” and rightly so. They not only provide a glimpse into the accretion flows and outflows of multiphase gas around a supermassive black hole but also decipher the accretion mechanism itself.

Looking ahead, Izumi underscores the importance of further high-resolution and high-sensitivity observations. This will allow scientists to fully understand the growth of supermassive black holes throughout cosmic history.

In summary, with ALMA and the promise of future large radio interferometers, astronomers are on the cusp of delving deeper into the enigmatic existence of these cosmic giants.

More about supermassive black holes

Supermassive black holes stand as the colossal sentinels of the cosmos, lurking at the centers of most massive galaxies. These extraordinary entities defy the imagination with their staggering mass and powerful gravitational pulls.

Formation of supermassive black holes

Astronomers theorize that supermassive black holes form through the collapse of massive gas clouds or from the mergers of hundreds or thousands of smaller black holes.

The early universe might have provided the perfect conditions for these giants to emerge, seeding the centers of nascent galaxies with the precursors to the supermassive black holes we observe today.

Characteristics of supermassive black holes

These black holes possess masses that can exceed millions or even billions of times that of our Sun. They are characterized by their event horizon. This is a boundary beyond which nothing, not even light, can escape their gravitational grasp.

Despite being invisible in direct observation, supermassive black holes can be detected through their interactions with their surroundings.

Accretion disks and jets

Material such as gas and stars, when drawn toward a supermassive black hole, forms a swirling orbit around it, known as an accretion disk. This disk heats up to incredible temperatures, emitting high-energy radiation and light.

In some cases, black holes can also eject part of this material away from the disk in the form of colossal jets that extend thousands of light-years into space.

Supermassive black holes and galactic dynamics

Supermassive black holes not only dominate the center of their host galaxies but also influence their evolution.

They can regulate the rate of star formation and are integral to the maintenance of galactic structure. The precise mechanics of these processes remain one of the most exciting areas of astrophysical research.

Observational breakthroughs

Advanced telescopes and observatories like the Event Horizon Telescope have made it possible to study the environments close to a supermassive black hole’s event horizon. These observations provide valuable insights into relativistic physics and the behavior of matter under extreme gravity.

In summary, supermassive black holes are not just mere points of infinite density. They are dynamic systems that play a crucial role in the fabric of the universe.

With ongoing research and technological advancements, our understanding of these cosmic giants continues to deepen, revealing more about the fundamental workings of our universe.

More about ALMA

The European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO), the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), and the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) of Japan, in cooperation with the Republic of Chile, have established the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) as an international astronomy facility.

ESO, on behalf of its Member States, NSF in conjunction with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) in Taiwan, and NINS in partnership with Academia Sinica (AS) in Taiwan and the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute (KASI), fund ALMA.

The construction and operations of ALMA receive leadership from ESO for its Member States, from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) managed by Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI) for North America, and from the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) on behalf of East Asia. The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) unifies the leadership and management of ALMA’s construction, commissioning, and operational phases.

The full study was published in the journal Science.

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