Massive Storm Found Within Galaxy

C. Harrison, A. Thomson; Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF; NASA

At first glance, galaxy J1430+1339—located about 1.1 billion light-years away from Earth—seemed fairly unassuming. In fact, some astronomers had even categorized it as “boring.” However, recent observations from the National Science Foundation's Very Large Array (VLA) have shown that such a designation couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, the supermassive black hole in the center of the galaxy, nicknamed the “Teacup Galaxy,” is creating an incredible storm, and could actually be killing the galaxy. The results have been subscribed in The Astrophysical Journal.

"It appears that a supermassive black hole is explosively heating and blasting around the gas in this galaxy and, as a result, is transforming it from an actively star-forming galaxy into one devoid of gas that can no longer form stars," lead author Chris Harrison of Durham University said in a press release.

Galaxies that do not have large quantities of the gas needed to actively form stars are elliptical, while galaxies that take on a great deal of star formation are spirals. While the Teacup Galaxy was once an active, spiral galaxy, the monstrous storm brewing within the galaxy will likely reclassify it.  

The supermassive black hole is generating bubbles of gas that extend anywhere from 30,000-40,000 light-years in either direction. There are also 2,000-light-year-long jets blasting from the center, moving very rapidly. This storm is shredding the galaxy apart and depleting the gas that would have been used to make new stars. This damage is what gives J1430+1339 its namesake shape.

"For many years, we've seen direct evidence of this happening in galaxies that are extremely bright when viewed through radio telescopes. These rare, radio-bright galaxies harbor powerful jets, launched at the black hole, that plow into the surrounding gas," Harrison continued. "However, to understand how all of the galaxies in our Universe formed, we needed to know if these same processes occur in less extreme galaxies that better represent the majority. This was the focus of our study.”

The storm was identified via radio waves. Prior to this discovery, this type of galactic damage had only been seen in galaxies emitting much higher levels of radio waves than the Teacup Galaxy. Fortunately, the VLA was sensitive enough to pick up on the storm and reveal the process.

"This 'storm' in the 'Teacup' means that the jet-driven process in which a black hole is removing or destroying star-forming material may be much more typical than we knew before, and could be a crucial piece in the puzzle of understanding how the galaxies we see around us were formed," Harrison concluded.

Moving forward, the astronomers will compare their observations from the Teacup Galaxy to other similar storms in order to find similarities. This information could help reveal how galactic evolution from spiral to elliptical takes place. 

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