Supermassive Black Hole Caught Feeding On Cold Gas

Posted: Jun 9 2016, 12:30am CDT | by , Updated: Jun 9 2016, 11:07pm CDT, in News | Latest Science News


Supermassive Black Hole Caught Feeding on Cold Gas
Illustration of clouds of cold gas around the Abell 2597 Brightest Cluster Galaxy. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF; D. Berry / SkyWorks; ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

Prior to the research, astronomers believed that black holes solely feed on a steady diet of hot gas from the galaxy's halo. It seems that they may like to chew down clumpy, cloudy rain too.

Astronomers have spotted a ‘hungry’ supermassive black hole that appears to feast on huge clouds of cold gas. The black hole is lying at a center of a galaxy cluster existing 1 billion light years away from the Earth and the eating habits of this giant object can provide clues on how black holes throughout the universe manage to grow so large.

Black holes were previously thought to feed solely on hot, ionized gas surrounding them, but new observations suggest that scientists may have gone wrong there.

Three gas clouds are hurtling towards black hole at a speed of almost 800,000 miles per hour and are only 150 light years away from its edge, making it almost certain that they will be gobbled up by the giant black hole. It also indicates the growth or accretion of supermassive black holes is more complicated than scientists had thought.

“The simple model of black hole accretion consists of a black hole surrounded by a sphere of hot gas, and that gas accretes smoothly onto the black hole, and everything's simple, mathematically," said coauthor Michael McDonald from MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. “But this is the most compelling evidence that this process is not smooth, simple, and clean, but actually quite chaotic and clumpy.”

Given the new observations, black holes probably have two ways of feeding. For most of the times, the main diet is still hot gas but on rare occasions, they may go into a feeding frenzy where they swallow rain of cold gas, dust or anything that comes in their way. 

The detection was made using Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) - one of the world’s most powerful telescopes - which is primarily designed to observe the oldest and most distant galaxies in the universe. Once again, the focus of the team was a massive galaxy in the Abell 2597 Cluster. The galaxy is tens of thousands of light years across and is probably filled with cold gas, which is necessary for the formation of new stars. 

Researchers were mapping all the cold gas in the cluster when they stumbled across something surprising. They found a trio of cold gas clouds heading towards the galactic center with a tremendous speed. Each cloud was tens of light years across and contained material equivalent to millions of Suns. The three clouds were just at the edge of the galaxy’s supermassive black hole and will probably absorbed into accretion disk instead of straight falling into black hole but will eventually be consumed by gigantic black hole.


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Hira Bashir covers daily affairs around the world.




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