Supermassive Black Holes Discovered to Cause Galactic Warming

(Image:  Kavli IPMU)
(Image: Kavli IPMU)

Galaxies begin as energetic spiral galaxies that are full of gas and dust, and are rich in color — perfect for forming bright new stars. As galaxies evolve, some of them turn into cosmic graveyards where new stars are no longer being formed. The mechanism that produces this dramatic transformation has remained a mystery — until now.

An international team of scientists now claim to have solved this long-standing mystery in astronomy. The team, led by the University of Tokyo and involved the University of Oxford, identified the potential cause using optical imaging spectroscopy from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey-IV Mapping Nearby Galaxies at Apache Point Observatory (SDSS-IV MaNGA).

The team discovered an unexpectedly common new phenomenon in a new class of galaxies dubbed “red geysers,” which may explain how the process works. Red geysers are galaxies that host low-energy supermassive black holes that drive intense interstellar winds.

These winds have so much heat and intensity they suppress star formation throughout whole galaxies. They do this by heating up the ambient gas and prevent it from cooling and condensing into stars. Lead author Dr. Edmond Cheung explains in a statement:

A galaxy dubbed Akira was chosen to be studied as it was a perfect example of “red geysers” (red refers to the color of galaxies lacking young blue stars, and geyser referring to the irregular wind outbursts from the supermassive black hole). The researchers found Akira had an intriguing and complex pattern of warm gas, which implies the existence of an out-flowing wind from the supermassive black hole at its center.

(Image: Kavli IPMU)

An artist’s rendition of the galaxies Akira (right) and Tetsuo (left) in action. Akira’s gravity pulls Tetsuo’s gas into its central supermassive black hole, fueling winds that have the power to heat Akira’s gas. Because of the action of the black hole winds, Tetsuo’s donated gas is rendered inert, preventing a new cycle of star formation in Akira. (Image: Kavli IPMU)

The researchers believe that the fuel for Akira’s supermassive black hole was most likely coming from its interaction with a smaller galaxy, called Tetsuo. The out-flowing wind proved to have enough energy to heat the surrounding gas, which could ultimately prevent any future star formation. Co-author Dr. Michele Cappellari explained in a statement:

Dr. Kevin Bundy, from the University of Tokyo, and overall leader of the collaboration said:

Like global warming on Earth, galactic warming has long-term consequences for red geyser galaxies. Cheung explains:

The MaNGA survey is currently in the process of mapping the details of 10,000 nearby galaxies, charting not only the supermassive black holes at galaxy centers, but also their edges as well. The survey is the largest of its kind, Renbin Yan from the University of Kentucky and a team member said in a statement:

The team hypothesizes that this phenomenon is very common in dormant galaxies. If their theory proves to be right, our very own Milky Way galaxy may not be safe from galactic warming.

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