The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) and the European Space Agency’s (ESA) XXM-Newton telescope have confirmed that supermassive black holes blow winds outward in all directions.
As a result of the discovery, astronomers can now measure the strength of these ultra-fast winds and prove they are powerful enough to inhibit a galaxy’s ability to create new stars.
Supermassive black holes blast matter into their host galaxies with X-ray-emitting winds that travel up to one-third the speed of light.
In a study prompted by the telescopes’ discovery, astronomers have determined that an extremely bright black hole known as a quasar that is 2 billion light-years from Earth, maintains winds that carry more energy every second than comes from more than a trillion suns.
“Now we know quasar winds significantly contribute to mass loss in a galaxy, driving out its supply of gas, which is fuel for star formation,” explained Emanuele Nardini, of Keele University in England and lead author of the study.
The NuSTAR and XMM-Newton telescopes simultaneously observed the black hole on five occasions in 2013 and 2014. The telescopes balance each other by monitoring different parts of the X-ray light spectrum of the black hole; the XMM-Newton views the lower energy and the NuSTAR watches the high-energy.
Previous observations of the XMM-Newton were able to detect black hole winds blowing toward Earth, but could not ascertain that the winds blow in all directions.
The XMM Newton also discovered iron atoms and other matter being carried by the winds directly in front of the black hole where they block X-rays. Combining the observation of the two telescopes allowed scientists to also find signatures of iron scattered from the sides. This proves that the winds come from the black hole in a beam, but in a nearly spherical manner.
“This is a great example of the synergy between XMM-Newton and NuSTAR. The complementarity of these two X-ray observatories is enabling us to unveil previously hidden details about the powerful side of the universe,” said Norbert Schartel, XMM-Newton project scientist at ESA.
Once the shape and extent of the winds were known, scientists were able to determine the strength of the winds and the degree they can inhibit the formation of new stars.
Astronomers guess supermassive black holes and their home galaxies evolve together and regulate each other’s growth. Evidence of this comes in part from observations of the central bulges of galaxies – the more massive the central bulge, the larger the supermassive black hole.
The latest discovery suggests that a supermassive black hole and its high-speed winds greatly affect the host galaxy and as the black hole bulks up in size, its winds pass vast amounts of matter outward through the galaxy. This stops new stars from forming.
Studying a black hole gives astronomers a unique look into a distant era of our universe, about 10 billion years ago, when supermassive black holes and their winds were more common and possibly shaping galaxies that we see today.
JPL and Caltech manage the NuSTAR Small Explorer mission.