Sections

Services

Information

UK United Kingdom

Pocket rocket of the universe: a new ‘fast and furious’ black hole

A black hole with extremely powerful jets has been found in the nearby galaxy Messier 83 (M83) by a team of Australian and American researchers, as we report in the journal Science today. Black holes are…

Artist’s impression of a microquasar, such as the newly-discovered MQ1 in the M83 galaxy. TD Russell (ICRAR-Curtin) using the BINSIM visualisation code by R Hynes (LSU), CC BY

A black hole with extremely powerful jets has been found in the nearby galaxy Messier 83 (M83) by a team of Australian and American researchers, as we report in the journal Science today.

Black holes are by definition invisible, but when matter falls towards (and then into) them, they turn into a very efficient class of engines.

Chuck in some fuel (any kind of matter will do) and you get a huge amount of energy extracted from it as it falls into the gravitational field of the hole; eventually, the infalling gas crosses the horizon and is lost forever (or not) to our view.

If a car engine could be as energy efficient as a black hole, we could drive to Saturn and back with one litre of petrol (based on typical gasoline combustion efficiency of 45 MJ/kg, compared with the energy released by accretion onto a black hole, about 10 billion MJ/kg).

We don’t have black-hole-powered cars because nobody knows how to make pocket-size black holes on Earth (not even the smart folks at CERN).

But Nature has found ways of making black holes and using them as compact sources of energy. The most energetic or most explosive sources in the universe (such as quasars and gamma-ray bursts) are powered by the gravitational field of black holes, not by nuclear fusion (which powers the sun and all other stars).

Exploring black holes (from a distance)

The more we explore the cosmos around us, the more evidence we find of active black holes and the effect they have on their surroundings. The newly-identified object in M83 (named MQ1, as the most energetic microquasar in M83) is the latest, striking example.

Hubble Space Telescope view of the spiral galaxy M83, which contains the powerful microquasar MQ1. The location of MQ1 is marked by a blue circle. The Hubble Heritage Project, CC BY

The power generated just outside a black hole spreads outwards via two possible channels:

  1. radiation, such as heat, visible light, UV and X-rays
  2. fast jets” made of electrons, positrons and sometimes also atomic nuclei.

Measuring the radiative luminosity is relatively straightforward, thanks to orbiting X-ray telescopes such as Chandra, XMM-Newton and Swift.

Measuring the jet power is more tricky. Jets eventually slam into the surrounding interstellar gas, shocking and heating it, so a black hole with powerful jets tends to be surrounded by an expanding, elongated “bubble” of hot ionised gas and free electrons.

Hubble Space Telescope view of the microquasar MQ1 in M83, observed with the Wide Field Camera 3 (combined Hydrogen and Sulfur emission). Two lobes of hot gas, created by the pair of jets, are clearly visible on either side of the central source. W.P. Blair (JHU) & R. Soria (ICRAR-Curtin)

By measuring the size and luminosity (both the optical and radio emission) of this bubble, we estimate the power of the jets and for how long they have been switched on. This is precisely what we did for MQ1 in the M83 galaxy.

We inferred a huge jet power, a few million times higher than the total power of the sun, but similar to a few other black holes discovered in nearby galaxies over the past decade.

So, MQ1 is not a total oddity or an experimental glitch; but it is the only one in its class (so far) for which we can also constrain the mass of the black hole, via X-ray measurements of the radiation emitted by the infalling gas.

The same physical processes that power microquasars such as MQ1 are also at work in active galaxies and quasars (at much larger scales). Here we can see the same structure (powerful central black hole, jets, lobes) in the active galaxy Hercules A. In both classes of systems, the power comes from the extraction of gravitational potential energy from the gas that falls towards the central black hole. NASA, ESA, S Baum and C O'Dea (RIT), R Perley and W Cotton (NRAO/AUI/NSF) and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)]

Explosions in the sky

We can say with high confidence that MQ1 is a small black hole, probably formed from a stellar collapse, like millions of other in each galaxy – so small and yet so powerful.

The discovery of MQ1 is just one of the results of our comprehensive study of the face-on spiral galaxy M83.

We are mapping this iconic Southern-sky galaxy (well known to Australian stargazers) with the Hubble Space Telescope and Magellan telescope (optical band), the Chandra X-ray Observatory (X-rays), the Australia Telescope Compact Array and the Very Large Array (radio).

We want to understand how stars are formed, evolve and die in a spiral galaxy.

Unlike the comfortable and relaxed state of our own ageing Milky Way, M83 is still young, loud, turbulent, rich of gas and of massive stars that explode as supernovae. (You wouldn’t expect otherwise from a galaxy that lends its name to a French electronic band.)

The significance of the huge jet power measured for MQ1 goes beyond this particular galaxy.

It helps us understand and quantify the strong effect that black hole jets have on the surrounding gas, which gets heated and swept away. This must have been a significant factor in the early stages of galaxy evolution, 12 billion years ago, because we have evidence that powerful black holes like MQ1 (rare today) were much more common at the time.

By studying microquasars such as MQ1, we get a glimpse of how the early universe evolved and how fast quasars grew.

Sign in to Favourite

Join the conversation

12 Comments sorted by

  1. Mark Amey

    logged in via Facebook

    Thanks Roberto, great stuff. Keep up the good work!

    report
  2. Doug Hutcheson

    Poet

    Only astronomy gives us images as beautiful as these. Delightful, thank you.

    report
    1. Paul Burns

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Doug Hutcheson

      Did you not see the article today on Sea Sapphires?

      But, yes the images Roberto has shared are stunning and his writing for a wide audience no less stellar.

      report
    2. Doug Hutcheson

      Poet

      In reply to Paul Burns

      Paul, "Did you not see the article today on Sea Sapphires?" Nope - I missed seeing that - I'll have to search.
      My point, I suppose, was images of our macro universe are impressive not only for themselves, but for the explanatory physics that is so often provided with them. Galaxies with jets coming out of them? Shmesh. But, galaxies with jets coming out of them, because of voracious black holes which are gobbling matter and releasing unbelievable amounts of energy, now that's impressive!
      Now, I'll look for Sea Sapphires and be prepared to be impressed.

      report
    3. Doug Hutcheson

      Poet

      In reply to Roberto Soria

      Wow, Roberto, that's a beautiful image. At the smallest magnification, the spiral arms are filled with pink jewels, which I presume are highly active regions of star formation? What an incredible sight.

      report
    4. Roberto Soria

      Senior Research Fellow at Curtin University

      In reply to Doug Hutcheson

      Red/pink bubbles in the spiral arms are warm gas clouds (emitting hydrogen lines) illuminated from within by massive stars that are forming inside. After a million years or so, the young stars blow away the remaining surrounding gas and you only see blue, crowded star clusters. If you look carefully, in many places you can see the transition between the two phases, with the pink gas reduced to a ring or shell, with the blue stars in the middle that have already cleared that part.

      report
    5. Doug Hutcheson

      Poet

      In reply to Roberto Soria

      Roberto, thanks for the explanation. For so many massive stars to be forming at the same time, would it be fair to characterise M83 as a young galaxy? The spiral arms seem to have so many young, massive stars that I am guessing we are seeing M83 at a time when the galactic gas supply is still large and has not been blown away from the galaxy by the supernovae I imagine would be the death throes of those huge stars. (I'm an interested amateur, with no training in the field, other than reading interesting books and articles like this.)

      report
    6. Roberto Soria

      Senior Research Fellow at Curtin University

      In reply to Doug Hutcheson

      Yes, it didn't start to use its gas and form stars until recently, so as you pointed out, it has a lot of star formation going on (over the last few 100 million years). There are also a lot of supernovae going off now (6 in the last 100 years as opposed to possibly 0 in the Milky Way).

      report
    7. Doug Hutcheson

      Poet

      In reply to Roberto Soria

      Roberto, thanks again for taking the time to reply. That image is a fascinating look at the evolution of a galaxy, as well as being beautiful in its own right.

      report