A supermassive black hole at the center of a neighbor galaxy apparently "burped" after swallowing up nearby matter, a phenomenon that may have been instrumental in shaping the early universe, new research shows.
Scientists using NASA's Chandra X-ray telescope found two streams of X-ray emissions near the heart of NGC 5195, a small galaxy located about 27 million light-years away. The galaxy is in the process of merging with another galaxy, NGC 5194, a large spiral also known as "The Whirlpool."
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A second set of observations from the Kitt Peak National Observatory's 0.9-meter optical telescope revealed a thin region of relatively cool hydrogen gas just beyond the outer arc of X-rays.
Scientists believe hot gas, which generated the X-ray emissions, plunged into the cooler regions, like a snowplow.
"This is the best example of snow-plowed material I've ever seen. This is clearly a way of ejecting gas from a galaxy," astronomer Eric Schlegel, with the University of Texas, San Antonio, said at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Kissimmee, Florida, on Tuesday.
"We would expect this would happen a lot more often in the early universe. You get galaxies at a higher density, they're going to collide more often and you're going to get this kind of effect," he added.
The research indicates that a black hole not only consumes matter that strays into the region of space warped by its gravity, but that the black hole can eject material as well.
Schlegel said it's possible the arcs of X-rays stem from material that was gravitationally catapulted by the galaxies' merger.
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"I'm skeptical that that would be an explanation," Schlegel told reporters. "The more interesting possibility is the supermassive black hole itself has actually reacted to all this mass coming in."
Follow-up observations of NGC 5195 in other wavelengths of light should flesh out scientists' understanding of what is happening.
"It gives us a local object to study," Schlegel said.
In related research, scientists found a supermassive black hole that may have been stripped of surrounding stars by a companion black hole. The pair, located about 1 billion light years away, co-reside in the galaxy SDSS J1126+2944.
The rare pair -- one of only 12 known galaxies with two supermassive black holes -- likely are the result of two galaxies merging, astrophysicist Julie Comerford, with the University of Colorado, Boulder, said at the AAS conference.
Scientists aren't sure why one of the galaxy's black holes has 500 times fewer stars than its mate.
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One option is that is extreme gravitational and tidal forces, caused by the galaxies' merger, have ripped away most of the stars from one black hole.
Another possibility is that the star-starved black hole is actually a rare "intermediate" black hole, with a mass of 100- to 1 million times the mass of the sun. If so, the smaller black hole likely came from a dwarf galaxy, with proportionally fewer stars.
"Intermediate mass black holes are hard to find ... and it's hard to know where to look for them," Comerford said If the galaxy has an intermediate black hole, it likely will eventually merge with its supermassive sister, creating an even bigger black hole, Comerford added.
The research was presented at the AAS meeting and appears in the Nov. 10 issue of Astrophysical Journal.