An international group of astronomers has looked at the incredibly fast winds of particles erupting from around supermassive black holes, and for the first time were able to measure the changes in temperature that these jets of plasma experience.
In a study, published in Nature, the team looked at how the energy of the black hole IRAS 13224–3809 was being absorbed by these galactic winds. They saw absorption features appearing and disappearing, and noted that this might be linked to how the black hole is releasing energy. Their analysis shows that the region surrounding a black hole can heat up and cool down in just a few hours.
"This is the first time we have seen that winds are interacting with the black hole's radiation," lead author Dr Michael Parker, from the University of Cambridge Institute of Astronomy, said in a statement. "Further study of this source is likely to have wide-ranging implications for our knowledge of how these winds form and are powered, where they are located, how dense they are, and how long they last – all of which will add to our understanding of the interaction between black holes and their galaxies."
Supermassive black holes are surrounded by gas and dust, which provide the “meals” for the black holes. The cosmic giants feed in a frenzy and tend to pull in a lot more than they can gorge on. The pulled-in material is heated up to millions of degrees, releasing an incredible amount of energy as X-rays and propelling particles away.
These particles travel at incredible speeds (23 percent of the speed of light in this particular case) for many hundreds of thousands of light-years, and they make up these hot galactic-wide winds that can affect galaxies significantly. This study provides an insight into the formation of these winds.
"We know that supermassive black holes affect the environment of their host galaxies, and powerful winds arising from near the black hole may be one means for them to do so," co-author Professor Fiona Harrison of Caltech added. "The rapid variability, observed for the first time, is providing clues as to how these winds form and how much energy they may carry out into the galaxy."
The source was studied by NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) and the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton telescope. The team will continue investigating this particular supermassive black hole in the hope they crack one of the many mysteries that surrounds the universe's giants.