Black holes are not fed by colliding galaxies after all

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.org

It’s not a question you’re likely to have ever considered, but the source of “food” for some of the most active black holes has been a longstanding line of inquiry for the astrophysics community. Many thought they had the answer when several studies seemed to show a link between collisions of similarly sized galaxies and the formation of a very active black hole at the centre of the merged galaxy. But a new survey of 1400 galaxies has answered the question once and for all and it turns out that, in most cases, this link doesn’t actually exist.

Jet powered by a black hole at the centre of the galaxy M87, 50 million light years from Earth. Image: NASA

It’s long been known that at the centre of most galaxies lies a black hole. Some are relatively quiet, like the one in our own galaxy, but others manage to take in some of the matter that surrounds them and then spit it out in the form of huge amounts of energy. There’s a name for what’s created by the most lively ones: Active Galactic Nuclei, or AGN for short. Scientists don’t quite understand why some black holes in galaxies are more active than others, but research done last year by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory did shed some light on how black holes grow in galaxies, by looking at how many of them are active at any one time and the size of the galaxies they inhabit. A new study, published in the Astrophysical Journal today, goes one step further and tests whether galaxy mergers trigger the creation of energetic AGN.

AGN give themselves away by emitting radiation. To do this, they take in gas and dust from their surroundings and heat it up before pouring it out again in the form of X-rays, radio, UV or other radiation. What we don’t know is how they take in this matter in the first place. Contrary to popular belief, black holes don’t actually suck in everything that surrounds them. In fact, unless some matter is heading in a straight line towards a black hole, it is much more likely to end up in orbit around it than falling into the black hole itself. This may sound counterintuitive, but it happens for the same reason that Earth and all the other planets in the solar system orbit the Sun — as long as an object has some sideways motion, or angular momentum, it will orbit rather than fall into the more massive object. Scientists have some idea of how matter could overcome this angular momentum on smaller and larger scales, but not in this situation.

Active and inactive galaxies showing varying levels of distortion. A large amount of distortion would give them them away as having undergone a major merger with another galaxy. Image credit: NASA/ESA and M. Cisternas (MPIA)

This new paper uses galaxies imaged by the COSMOS survey. What makes this study different from all the others is that the researchers included a control sample. As well as images of 140 galaxies with active black holes at the centre, they used 1264 images of galaxies they knew to be inactive. The pictures were given to ten galaxy experts at eight different institutions who were asked to classify them as “distorted” or “not distorted”. A galaxy with an active galactic nucleus will have certain tell tale signs giving away its AGN, so these giveaways were removed to make the trial “blind” — a technique always used in medical trials and other branches of science, but not often required in physics where the work is usually done by computers. Blinding the study makes sure that the people judging whether the galaxies are distorted are not, consciously or subconsciously, biased by any belief that active galaxies are more likely to be distorted than inactive ones.

The researchers found that, in the majority of the cases, there was no evidence that galaxy merger trigger the creation of active galactic nuclei. This means that someone will need to some up with another, more peaceful suggestion of how AGN get fed. A few ideas exist, such as “galactic harassment” — the fly by of another galaxy that gets close enough to disturb but not to do any damage or merge with the original galaxy — or the collisions of clouds of gas within the galaxy. But more research is needed to establish which, if any, of these ideas are the right one.

However, only galaxies around in the last eight billion years were included in the study, so the questions still remains of whether AGN created in the more distant past were triggered by mergers. In fact, this is the next problem on the groups to-do list.

*

Reference
Cisternas, M., Jahnke, K., Inskip, K., Kartaltepe, J., Koekemoer, A., Lisker, T., Robaina, A., Scodeggio, M., Sheth, K., Trump, J., Andrae, R., Miyaji, T., Lusso, E., Brusa, M., Capak, P., Cappelluti, N., Civano, F., Ilbert, O., Impey, C., Leauthaud, A., Lilly, S., Salvato, M., Scoville, N., & Taniguchi, Y. (2011). THE BULK OF THE BLACK HOLE GROWTH SINCE z ~ 1 OCCURS IN A SECULAR UNIVERSE: NO MAJOR MERGER-AGN CONNECTION*
The Astrophysical Journal, 726 (2) DOI: 10.1088/0004-637X/726/2/57

 

Click here to read the paper on arXiv.

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4 Comments

Filed under Physics

4 responses to “Black holes are not fed by colliding galaxies after all

  1. Correct me if I am wrong, but don’t stars work through a sequence as they
    gradually make their way in towards the Galactic Centre? They are born from nebulae on the outer extremities, take on mass and get larger and larger to form Brown Dwarfs, then Red Dwarfs, then Main sequence stars, before fizzling out into small heavy White dwarfs. These white dwarfs eventually explode into supernovas or become engulfed by the black hole which then spits them out as x-rays etc. By this logic, the AGNs would be those which are presently chomping on an old star, while other galactic centres are less active – because their oldest star has not reached the critical proximity.

    • I don’t think that’s right – stars don’t move towards the galactic centre as they grow older. Brown dwarfs are actually “failed” stars – ones that don’t have enough mass to fuse hydrogen, and are a bit like really big planets. Red dwarfs are small (and cool) main sequence stars. A white dwarf is an end point in the life of a star that isn’t massive enough to become a neutron star or black hole.

      As far as I’m aware, stars in these stages of their life can occur anywhere in the galaxy (whether they do or not is another matter, but there is no sequence that has stars moving towards the galactic centre as they get older).

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