spaceSpace and PhysicsspaceAstronomy

Tantrum-Throwing Black Hole Shouldn’t Be This Active

The observations suggest that supermassive black holes might be more influential on their host galaxies than thought.


Dr. Alfredo Carpineti


Dr. Alfredo Carpineti

Senior Staff Writer & Space Correspondent

Alfredo (he/him) has a PhD in Astrophysics on galaxy evolution and a Master's in Quantum Fields and Fundamental Forces.

Senior Staff Writer & Space Correspondent

Edited by Holly Large
Holly Large - Editorial Assistant

Holly Large

Jr Copy Editor & Staff Writer

Holly is a graduate medical biochemist with an enthusiasm for making science interesting, fun and accessible.

 Side view of a galaxy with spiral arms of bright blue stars separated by dark  bands of interstellar dust. The galaxy’s active centre is blasting out a strong wind of gas in all  directions, shown as yellowish-white streaks. An inset zooms in on the centre, showing that the  wind is coming from a swirling disc of gas, lit up in orange and yellow, which encircles a  supermassive black hole.

Artist's impression of galaxy Markarian 817 and its active black hole.

Image credit: ESA (acknowledgment: work performed by ATG under contract to ESA)

Supermassive black holes can certainly be messy eaters. They are not exactly plugholes that devour every last drop. In fact, they are more like toddlers. Sure, they might be gluttons and try to get a lot of food in their mouths, but they will also make a mess. So imagine finding a mess even when the toddler has only a snack in front of them. This is what researchers have found looking at the supermassive black hole inside galaxy Markarian 817.

The mess in black holes occurs because the gas that approaches them settles in an accretion disk before being eaten. The enormous gravity and the interactions in the disk release a lot of energy, which in turn pushes some material away in powerful galaxy-size winds.


The most active black holes do that very well. But the one in Markarian 817, located 430 million light years from us, is a modest black hole in a regular galaxy. Despite the apparent tranquility, observations are showing the same powerful winds. These winds released over the accretion disk lasted for several hundred days and moved at a few percent of the speed of light.

“You might expect very fast winds if a fan was turned on to its highest setting. In the galaxy we studied, called Markarian 817, the fan was turned on at a lower power setting, but there were still incredibly energetic winds being generated,” lead author Miranda Zak, an undergraduate researcher at the University of Michigan, said in a statement.

 Image of a spiral galaxy seen face-on. The galactic centre is lit up brightly in  white, around which lies a ring of purple stars and outside that several spiral arms in blue. The  background is black with several other galaxies visible.
Hubble's view of Markarian 817
Image credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team

The previously unseen behavior could explain features in galaxies that have been noticed for a while. Objects like our own Milky Way have few new stars forming in their central region, the area around their supermassive black holes. Maybe ultra-fast winds from a little snack are responsible for that scarcity.

“It is very uncommon to observe ultra-fast winds, and even less common to detect winds that have enough energy to alter the character of their host galaxy. The fact that Markarian 817 produced these winds for around a year, while not being in a particularly active state, suggests that black holes may reshape their host galaxies much more than previously thought,” added co-author Elias Kammoun, an astronomer at the Roma Tre University, Italy.


The crucial observations came from the European Space Agency XMM-Newton telescope. It saw how the winds were blocking the X-rays emitted in the immediate surroundings of the black hole. The measurements were then backed up by NASA’s NuSTAR telescope.

The study is published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.


spaceSpace and PhysicsspaceAstronomy
  • tag
  • galaxies,

  • black holes,

  • supermassive black holes,

  • Astronomy,

  • accretion disks,

  • galaxy cores