A monster black hole acts like a pump in a cosmic fountain, spouting and siphoning matter, according to unprecedented new observations.
Researchers have, for the first time, detected cold molecular gas funneling into and spraying out of a black hole within the same system. This provides evidence that both events occur in one grand process, officials from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) said in a statement. ESO operates and acts as a major partner for two instruments that collected data in this study.
Every large galaxy, such as the Milky Way, has a supermassive black hole at its center, according to NASA. According to the study, cold gas flying outward from the center eventually falls back to the center of the galaxy, where a black hole's gravitational pull keeps the torrential process going. [This Trippy Simulation Shows How Monster Black Holes Glow Before They Collide]
The new work focuses on an observation of a single celestial case, but the team speculated that the fountain phenomena may be common, National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) officials said in another statement. On behalf of North America, NRAO leads and operates a radio telescope site called ALMA that made observations for this research. The findings could help "trace processes fundamental to galaxy evolution," researchers said in their study, published Sept. 17 in the Astrophysical Journal.
The enormous black hole observed in the study is relatively near to Earth. It churns 1 billion light-years away, in the constellation Aquarius, within an elliptical galaxy at the center of the Abell 2597 galaxy cluster.
The team made a combined analysis of Abell 2597 by using several instruments. Data from MUSE, the Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer on ESO's Very Large Telescope in Chile, revealed warm, ionized gas shooting out of the central galaxy. And ALMA, ESO's Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (also in Chile), found clumps of frigid, molecular gas in the same place, falling back into the black hole.
"The unique aspect here is a very detailed coupled analysis of the source, using data from ALMA and MUSE," Grant Tremblay, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and lead author on the new work, said in ESO's statement. "The two facilities make for an incredibly powerful combination."
These facilities' observations, combined with an ultradeep observation by NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory, revealed the heated regions of this fountain in detail.
The researchers painted a full picture of the action at the galaxy's heart. Frigid gas clouds that drop to temperatures of minus 260 degrees Celsius (minus 436 degrees Fahrenheit) drain toward the monster black hole. This activity powers fast-moving jets spewing plasma, a blazing ionized gas. Once the plasma is out in the void of space, it cools down.
But because the jets aren't moving faster than the escape speed from the galaxy, the cooling clumps fall back toward the center to the black hole — as researchers said, "keeping the fountain long-lived."