galactic nuclei


The Huge-LQG (Large Quasar Group)

The Huge-LQG is a possible structure that could be one of the largest in the known universe. Having originally been identified as the largest, the Hercules-Corona Borealis Great Wall is bigger at 10 billion light years.

The Huge-LQG consists of 73 quasars, a quasar being a class of active galactic nuclei is essentially a superheated region of gas and dust that surrounds a supermassive black hole typically being 10-10,000 times the size of the Schwarzschild radius of the black hole. The existence of this structure defies Einstein’s cosmological principal which states that at large scales, the universe is approximately homogenous (meaning that the fluctuation in matter density throughout space can be considered small). It’s around 9 billion light years away from us, has a length of 1.24 gigaparsecs which is 4.0443 billion light years and a solar mass of 6.1 quintillion (that’s 6.1 quintillion times the mass of our sun and our sun is approximately 2 nonillion kg’s)!



Some galaxies pump out vast amounts of energy from a very small volume of space, typically not much bigger than our own solar system. The cores of these galaxies, so called active galactic nuclei or AGNs, are often hundreds of millions or even billions of light-years away, so are difficult to study in any detail. Natural gravitational ‘microlenses’ can provide a way to probe these objects, and now a team of astronomers have seen hints of the extreme AGN brightness changes that hint at their presence. Leading the microlensing work, PhD student Alastair Bruce of the University of Edinburgh presents their work today (Friday, 1 July) at the National Astronomy Meeting in Nottingham.

The energy output of an AGN is often equivalent to that of a whole galaxy of stars. This is an output so intense that most astronomers believe only gas falling in towards a supermassive black hole – an object with many millions of times the mass of the Sun – can generate it. As the gas spirals towards the black hole it speeds up and forms a disc, which heats up and releases energy before the gas meets its demise.

Scientists are particularly interested in seeing what happens to the gas as it approaches the black hole. But studying such small objects at such large distances is tricky, as they simply look like points of light in even the best telescopes. Observations with spectroscopy (where light from an object is dispersed into its component colors) show that fast moving clouds of emitting material surround the disc but the true size of the disc and exact location of the clouds are very difficult to pin down.

Bruce will describe how astronomers can make use of cosmic coincidences, and benefit from a phenomenon described by Einstein’s general theory of relativity more than a century ago. In his seminal theory, Einstein described how light travels in curved paths under the influence of a gravitational field. So massive objects like black holes, but also planets and stars, can act to bend light from a more distant object, effectively becoming a lens.

This means that if a planet or star in an intervening galaxy passes directly between the Earth and a more distant AGN, over a few years or so they act as a lens, focusing and intensifying the signal coming from near the black hole. This type of lensing, due to a single star, is termed microlensing. As the lensing object travels across the AGN, emitting regions are amplified to an extent that depends on their size, providing astronomers with valuable clues.

Bruce and his team believe they have already seen evidence for two microlensing events associated with AGN. These are well described by a simple model, displaying a single peak and a tenfold increase in brightness over several years. Microlensing in AGNs has been seen before, but only where the presence of the galaxy was already known. Now Bruce and his team are seeing the extreme changes in brightness that signifies the discovery of both previously unknown microlenses and AGNs.

Bruce says: “Every so often, nature lends astronomers a helping hand and we see a very rare event. It’s remarkable that an unpredictable alignment of objects billions of light-years away could help us probe the surroundings of black holes. In theory, microlensing could even let us see detail in accretion discs and the clouds in their vicinity. We really need to take advantage of these opportunities whenever they arise.”

There are expected to be fewer than 100 active AGN microlensing events on the sky at any one time, but only some will be at or near their peak brightness. The big hope for the future is the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), a project the UK recently joined. From 2019 on, it will survey half the sky every few days, so has the potential to watch the characteristic changes in the appearance of the AGNs as the lensing events take place.

TOP IMAGE….A schematic diagram showing how microlensing affects our view of quasars (the most luminous AGNs). Credit: A. Bruce / Edinburgh

LOWER IMAGE….Artist’s rendering of ULAS J1120+0641, a very distant quasar powered by a black hole with a mass two billion times that of the Sun. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

NASA’s WISE findings poke hole in black hole ‘doughnut’ theory

A survey of more than 170,000 supermassive black holes, using NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), has astronomers reexamining a decades-old theory about the varying appearances of these interstellar objects.

The unified theory of active, supermassive black holes, first developed in the late 1970s, was created to explain why black holes, though similar in nature, can look completely different. Some appear to be shrouded in dust, while others are exposed and easy to see.

The unified model answers this question by proposing that every black hole is surrounded by a dusty, doughnut-shaped structure called a torus. Depending on how these “doughnuts” are oriented in space, the black holes will take on various appearances. For example, if the doughnut is positioned so that we see it edge-on, the black hole is hidden from view. If the doughnut is observed from above or below, face-on, the black hole is clearly visible.

However, the new WISE results do not corroborate this theory. The researchers found evidence that something other than a doughnut structure may, in some circumstances, determine whether a black hole is visible or hidden. The team has not yet determined what this may be, but the results suggest the unified, or doughnut, model does not have all the answers.

Every galaxy has a massive black hole at its heart. The new study focuses on the “feeding” ones, called active, supermassive black holes, or active galactic nuclei. These black holes gorge on surrounding gas material that fuels their growth.

With the aid of computers, scientists were able to pick out more than 170,000 active supermassive black holes from the WISE data. They then measured the clustering of the galaxies containing both hidden and exposed black holes – the degree to which the objects clump together across the sky.

If the unified model was true, and the hidden black holes are simply blocked from view by doughnuts in the edge-on configuration, then researchers would expect them to cluster in the same way as the exposed ones. According to theory, since the doughnut structures would take on random orientations, the black holes should also be distributed randomly. It is like tossing a bunch of glazed doughnuts in the air – roughly the same percentage of doughnuts always will be positioned in the edge-on and face-on positions, regardless of whether they are tightly clumped or spread far apart.

But WISE found something totally unexpected. The results showed the galaxies with hidden black holes are more clumped together than those of the exposed black holes. If these findings are confirmed, scientists will have to adjust the unified model and come up with new ways to explain why some black holes appear hidden.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


The cloudy cores of active galaxies

What would it look like to travel to the center of an active galaxy? Most galactic centers are thought to house black holes millions of times more massive than our Sun. The spaces surrounding these supermassive black holes may be far from dormant, however, flickering in many colors and earning the entire object class the title of Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN). Pictured above is a video illustrating how an active galactic nucleus may appear up close. AGN typically sport massive accretion disks feeding the central black hole, as well as powerful jets shooting electrically charged matter far into the surrounding universe. Clouds of gas and dust seen orbiting the central black holes have recently been found to be so dense that they intermittently eclipse even penetrating x-rays from reaching us. These X-ray dimming events, as short as hours but as long as years, were detected in an analysis encompassing over a decade of data taken by the NASA’s orbiting Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer (RXTE).

Image credit: NASA’s GSFC, W. Steffen (UNAM)


I walked acoss the Milky Way
So I could look for where you were. 
Despite the road of cosmic rays,
My desperate heart was undeterred. 
The midst of that celestial backdrop,
Although brighter than met the eye,
Was occupied by a black hole
Common to all galactic nuclei. 
Upon the hope of reaching you,
I lost my balance and suddenly lurched,
Captured inside its event horizon
Just at the end of that search. 
I’d thought that we were meant to be
And never had a single doubt. 
But I was matter, you anti-matter,
I fell in while you were still out. 
Perhaps we were only to part–
Meeting would be annihilation. 
And even if black holes could change,
I’d be a different set of information. 
Yet I continued to dream of us
Ignoring the physical clarity
While eternally descending
Toward that mighty singularity.

Record massive black holes discovered lurking in monster galaxies

An artist’s concept of stars moving in the central regions of a giant elliptical galaxy that harbors a supermassive black hole.

University of California, Berkeley, astronomers have discovered the largest black holes to date ‑- two monsters with masses equivalent to 10 billion suns that are threatening to consume anything, even light, within a region five times the size of our solar system.

These black holes are at the centers of two galaxies more than 300 million light years from Earth, and may be the dark remnants of some of the very bright galaxies, called quasars, that populated the early universe.

“In the early universe, there were lots of quasars or active galactic nuclei, and some were expected to be powered by black holes as big as 10 billion solar masses or more,” said Chung-Pei Ma, UC Berkeley professor of astronomy. “These two new supermassive black holes are similar in mass to young quasars, and may be the missing link between quasars and the supermassive black holes we see today.”

Black holes are dense concentrations of matter that produce such strong gravitational fields that even light cannot escape. While exploding stars, called supernovas, can leave behind black holes the mass of a single star like the sun, supermassive black holes have presumably grown from the merger of other black holes or by capturing huge numbers of stars and massive amounts of gas.

“These black holes may shed light on how black holes and their surrounding galaxies have nurtured each other since the early universe,” said UC Berkeley graduate student Nicholas McConnell, first author of a paper on the discovery published in the Dec. 8, 2011 issue of the British journal Nature by McConnell, Ma and their colleagues.

To date, approximately 63 supermassive black holes have been found sitting in the cores of nearby galaxies. The largest for more than three decades was a 6.3 billion solar mass black hole in the center of the nearby galaxy M87.

One of the newly discovered black holes is 9.7 billion solar masses and located in the elliptical galaxy NGC 3842, the brightest galaxy in the Leo cluster of galaxies, 320 million light years away in the direction of the constellation Leo. The second is as large or larger and sits in the elliptical galaxy NGC 4889, the brightest galaxy in the Coma cluster about 336 million light years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Coma Berenices.

According to McConnell, these black holes have an event horizon – the “abandon all hope” edge from which not even light can escape – that is 200 times the orbit of Earth, or five times the orbit of Pluto. Beyond the event horizon, each black hole has a gravitational influence that would extend over a sphere 4,000 light years across.

“For comparison, these black holes are 2,500 times as massive as the black hole at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, whose event horizon is one fifth the orbit of Mercury,” McConnell said.

These 10 billion solar mass black holes have remained hidden until now, presumably because they are living in quiet retirement, Ma said. During their active quasar days some 10 billion years ago, they cleared out the neighborhood by swallowing vast quantities of gas and dust. The surviving gas became stars that have since orbited peacefully. According to Ma, these monster black holes, and their equally monster galaxies that likely contain a trillion stars, settled into obscurity at the center of galaxy clusters.

NGC 3842 (upper left) is the brightest galaxy in a rich cluster of galaxies. The black hole at its center (shown in middle as artist’s concept) is surrounded by stars distorted by its immense gravitational field. The black hole, which is seven times larger than Pluto’s orbit, would dwarf our solar system (inset).

Astronomers believe that many, if not all, galaxies have a massive black hole at the center, with the larger galaxies harboring larger black holes. The largest black holes are found in elliptical galaxies, which are thought to result from the merger of two spiral galaxies. Ma found, however, that mergers of elliptical galaxies themselves could produce the largest elliptical galaxies as well as supermassive black holes approaching 10 billion solar masses. These black holes can grow even larger by consuming gas left over from a merger.

Using telescopes at the Gemini and Keck observatories in Hawaii and at McDonald Observatory in Texas, McConnell and Ma obtained detailed spectra of the diffuse starlight at the centers of several massive elliptical galaxies, each the brightest galaxy in its cluster. So far, they’ve analyzed the orbital velocities of stars in two galaxies and calculated the central masses to be in the quasar range. Having such huge masses contained within a volume only a few hundred light years across led the astronomers to conclude that the masses were massive black holes.

“If all that mass were in stars, then we would see their light”, Ma said.

Modeling these massive galaxies required use of state-of-the-art supercomputers at the Texas Advanced Computing Center.

“For an astronomer, finding these insatiable black holes is like finally encountering people nine feet tall, whose great height had only been inferred from fossilized bones. How did they grow so large?” Ma said. “This rare find will help us understand whether these black holes had very tall parents or ate a lot of spinach.”