X-Ray Images Show The Irregular Heartbeat Of A Galaxy

NGC 4696 with the plasma x-ray emission in red, the radio emission in blue, and the optical emission in green. X-ray: NASA/CXC/MPE/J.Sanders et al.; Optical: NASA/STScI; Radio: NSF/NRAO/VLA

Supermassive black holes can have a huge impact on their host galaxies. This is the case of the elliptical galaxy NGC 4696, whose black hole has been pumping material out into intergalactic space and forming a heart-shaped plasma cloud around the galaxy.

It’s not just the shape that inspired astronomers to link this system to a heart. The supermassive black hole is intermittently and irregularly releasing material in the form of jets. This "beating" of energetic particles happens about every 5 to 10 million years, which is enough to keep the material at a temperature of millions of degrees.

As reported in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, astronomers have used the NASA X-ray observatory Chandra to look at the galaxy. They discovered that bursts from the black hole have created cavities in the intergalactic plasma and have pushed heavier elements away from the center of the galaxy, which could contribute to the reduced star formation rate in some galaxies with active supermassive black holes.

The international team of researchers was able to individuate shock fronts, like sonic booms, as the black hole accelerated new material faster than the speed of sound in the intergalactic plasma. The distribution of these shocks was crucial to work out how often the supermassive black hole flares up.

content-1492688499-ngc4696-metallicity-nChandra X-ray image of NGC 4696, Processed for Curved Features. NASA/CXC/MPE/J.Sanders et al.

The team applied different analysis techniques to the data to look at the intricacies of the system. One of them focused on the curved structures in the plasma, which ended up looking like a post-impressionist painting.

And if neither heart nor art is your cup of tea, there’s also a sonic analysis. The ripples can be seen as extremely deep discordant sounds, 56 octaves below the notes near middle C. The music of the spheres in its most dramatic form.

If the curved features are not due to sonic interactions, researchers suggest that they could be due to either turbulence in the plasma or magnetic activity.

NGC 4696 is the central bright galaxy in the Centaurus cluster, a collection of over 100 objects at about 145 million light-years away.  


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