New Findings Show A Surprising Way Black Holes Could Affect Star Formation

A composite image of a black hole that is triggering star formation across the longest distance ever seen. (Image: NASA/CXC/INAF/R. Gilli et al.)

Somewhere in the distant universe nearly 10 billion light years from Earth, an enormous black hole is spewing a powerful jet of energy that might be turbocharging star formation in galaxies a million light years from the source.

Though black holes have earned a reputation as cosmic vacuum cleaners, they also serve as the centre of galaxies, spew jets of particles and radiation, and could have a role in star formation. If confirmed, the new result might demonstrate the first observation of a black hole influencing star formation across multiple galaxies.

Scientists first spotted this galaxy, called (QSO) SDSS J1030+0524, with the Karl Jansky Very Large Array in New Mexico. This work (and the image above) combined visible light observations from the Large Binocular Telescope in Arizona, radio waves from the Very Large Telescope in Chile, and the Earth-orbiting Chandra X-ray Observatory to create an image of the environment around the object. The results revealed an above-average density of galaxies within a million light years of the main galaxy. The main galaxy is the bright pink spot near the lower-centre of the above image.

Combining all of the data painted a complex story. The black hole emits two jets of particles (the blue and purple areas on either side of the galaxy in the image) that emits radio waves. The gas surrounding the black hole emits x-rays. Another cloud of gas—the large pink spot—produces the x-rays at the edge of the image on the left. It seems as if this cloud, heated by the jet, passed trough several galaxies in the image. That compressed their gas, and spurred star formation at higher-than-average rates, according to the paper published in Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Isabella Prandoni, an astronomer at the INAF Istituto di Radioastronomia in Bologna, Italy who worked on the study, told Gizmodo that the researchers behind the work were more used to the opposite case—black holes injecting enough energy into galaxies to slow star formation. Even in cases where researchers have observed enhancement, Prandoni said it usually happens closer to the radio jet and “not on scales of several hundred kiloparsecs.” For reference, a kiloparsec is around 3,260 light years. The discovery of the vast and surprising influence of black holes on star formation could have important consequences.

“If it’s something common, then supermassive black holes may have a big role not only in shaping their host galaxy, but in shaping the whole environment in which they formed,” Roberto Gilli, the study’s first author from INAF, told Gizmodo.

Though this would be a potentially exciting result, this work is just an interpretation of the data to this point, explained Prandoni. It will take deeper, higher-resolution radio observations to confirm what’s going on. Gilli told Gizmodo that next, the research teams is planning to observe this system more closely to see just how far its impact on galaxies extends, and to explore other potential candidates for this behaviour, like the “Spiderweb Galaxy.”

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