NASA images help explain the eating habits of supermassive black holes

These images of the Andromeda galaxy use data from NASA’s retired Spitzer Space Telescope. Multiple wavelengths are shown in the image on the left, revealing stars, dust, and areas of star formation. The image on the right shows dust only, making it easier to see the galaxy’s underlying structure. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Data from NASA’s retired Spitzer Space Telescope has given scientists new insight into why some supermassive black holes shine differently than others. Images from NASA’s retired Spitzer Space Telescope show a stream of dust thousands of light-years long heading toward the supermassive black hole at the center of the Andromeda galaxy. It turns out that these flows can explain how a black hole, billions of times more massive than the sun, can satisfy its voracious appetite while still eating “quietly.” When a supermassive black hole devours gas and dust, that material heats up just before it collides, creating an incredible light show, sometimes brighter than an entire galaxy full of stars. As matter is consumed in chunks of different sizes, the black hole’s brightness fluctuates. But the black holes at the centers of the Milky Way (Earth’s home galaxy) and the Andromeda galaxy (one of our closest neighbors) are among the most silent eaters in the universe. The brightness of the little light they emit does not vary much, suggesting that they are consuming a small but steady stream of food rather than large chunks. The flow gradually approaches the black hole in a spiral pattern, much like water swirling in a drain pipe. In search of Andromeda’s food source A study published earlier this year extended the hypothesis that a stationary supermassive black hole provides a steady stream of gas to the Andromeda galaxy. The authors used a computer model to simulate how gas and dust near Andromeda’s supermassive black hole behaves over time. Simulations showed that a small disk of hot gas could form near a supermassive black hole and be continuously fed. The disk can be filled and maintained by numerous gas and dust streams. But the researchers also discovered that these flows must stay within a certain size and flow rate. Otherwise, matter would fall into the black hole in irregular clumps, causing large fluctuations in light.

Snapshots to create a comprehensive picture of Andromeda. Mission details JPL managed the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington until the mission was canceled in January 2020. Scientific operations were conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology. Spacecraft operations were conducted at Lockheed Martin Space in Littleton, Colorado. The data are archived in his IPAC Infrared Science Archive at the California Institute of Technology. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

When the authors compared their results with data from Spitzer and NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, they found that the dust spiral previously identified by Spitzer met these constraints. This led the authors to conclude that the spiral feeds Andromeda’s supermassive black hole. Astrophysicist Almudena Prieto, of the Canary Islands Institute of Astrophysics and the university’s observatory, said: “This will allow scientists to re-examine archival data and compare it with modern computer simulations to learn more about the dynamics of galaxies. It’s a great example of how to learn more.” Munich collaborator – author of the study published this year. “We have 20 years of data on him, and we can see things that we didn’t see when we first collected the data.” Learn more about Andromeda Spitzer was launched in his 2003 year and managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He studied the universe using infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye. Different wavelengths reveal different features of Andromeda, including hot light sources like stars and cold light sources like dust. By separating these wavelengths and looking at just the dust, astronomers can see the “skeleton” of galaxies, the places where gas is merging and cooling, sometimes forming dust and creating conditions for star formation. be able to. This view of Andromeda brought some surprises. For example, even though Andromeda is a spiral galaxy like the Milky Way, it is dominated by a large dust ring rather than individual arms orbiting its center. The image also shows a secondary hole in part of the ring, with a dwarf galaxy passing through it. Andromeda’s proximity to the Milky Way means that it appears larger than other galaxies when viewed from Earth. To the naked eye, Andromeda is about 6 times the width of the Moon (about 3 degrees). Despite having a wider field of view than Hubble, Spitzer needed to take 11,000 snapshots to create this comprehensive image of Andromeda.