Witnessing the Formation of One of the Most Massive Objects in the Universe

Image of Gerrit Schellenberger in the desert
Gerrit Schellenberger

We welcome Gerrit Schellenberger as our guest blogger. He received his PhD in Bonn, Germany in 2016, and has been a post-doctoral researcher at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian since March 2016. His research includes working on galaxy clusters and groups in large samples for cosmology, but also on individual objects in the X-rays and in the radio regime.

From the beginning of my astronomical career, I was fascinated by studying galaxy clusters, consisting of hundreds, sometimes even thousands of galaxies held together by gravity only. Yet, the galaxies alone do not — by far — sum up to the mass necessary to keep the cluster bound together. Beginning in the 1970s after the birth of X-ray astronomy and the first imaging satellites such as Einstein and ROSAT, scientists discovered that a very hot gas exists between the galaxies of the cluster. The mass of this gas exceeds the mass of all the stars in the galaxies together.

Although this gas is the most dominant, visible structure in galaxy clusters, it is only about 10% of the total mass (while the stars in the galaxies make only about 1%). The rest, roughly 90%, is dark matter, which cannot be observed directly. However, we can see its effect on the hot gas and galaxies in galaxy clusters: the gravity not only keeps the galaxies within the cluster, but also compresses the gas, heating it to the point where it emits X-rays. So we can study dark matter in clusters by measuring the properties (like temperature) of the hot gas from the X-ray emission.

Intrigued by this, I started to analyze a sample comprising 64 clusters during my PhD in Bonn, Germany, with the goal of obtaining total masses (including the dark matter component) for all of them. It turns out that smaller and lighter galaxy clusters, also called galaxy groups, do not follow the expected scaling between X-ray emission and temperature at a given cluster mass, meaning that the X-ray properties of gas in these systems cannot be used to give reliable mass estimates. Therefore, galaxy groups can only be of limited use for cosmological studies, where it is crucial to estimate the amount of matter in objects and how it changes with cosmic time.

Tycho's Supernova Remnant: The Clumpy and Lumpy Death of a Star

Image of Tycho's Supernova Remnant
Tycho's Supernova Remnant
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO.; Optical: DSS

In 1572, Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe was among those who noticed a new bright object in the constellation Cassiopeia. Adding fuel to the intellectual fire that Copernicus started, Tycho showed this "new star" was far beyond the Moon, and that it was possible for the Universe beyond the Sun and planets to change. 

Astronomers now know that Tycho's new star was not new at all. Rather it signaled the death of a star in a supernova, an explosion so bright that it can outshine the light from an entire galaxy. This particular supernova was a Type Ia, which occurs when a white dwarf star pulls material from, or merges with, a nearby companion star until a violent explosion is triggered. The white dwarf star is obliterated, sending its debris hurtling into space.

Hunting Elusive Giants: Chandra Spots a Triple AGN

image of Ryan W. Pfeifle in front of a mountain
Ryan W. Pfeifle

We welcome Ryan W. Pfeifle as our guest blogger. He received his B.S. in Physics from George Mason University (GMU) in 2017, and then stayed at GMU to continue onto his Ph.D and work with his current advisor on colliding galaxies and active galactic nuclei (AGNs). He is currently a third-year graduate research assistant in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at GMU. His primary focus is the identification and characterization of dual and triple AGNs in advanced mergers in an effort to understand the relationship between galaxy mergers and black hole growth. He has two recently published papers, one on their dual AGN program (published in April and available here), and one that is the focus of this press release, published in the Astrophysical Journal and available here. In addition to his research work, he is a tour guide at the GMU observatory in Fairfax, VA.

Over the past several decades, we have come to understand that supermassive black holes (SMBHs), with masses in the range of one million to several billion times the mass of our own sun, reside at the centers of most massive galaxies. Not only do we see these SMBHs in nearby galaxies, we also see them in galaxies as early as a few hundred million years after the Big Bang! Astronomers are still struggling to explain how these massive black holes could grow to these immense sizes so quickly, but one possible explanation lies in the interactions between galaxies.

Found: Three Black Holes On Collision Course

Image of black hole triplet
SDSS J084905.51+111447.2
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/George Mason Univ./R. Pfeifle et al.; Optical: SDSS & NASA/STScI

A new study using data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and other telescopes provides the strongest evidence yet for a system of three supermassive black holes, as described in our latest press release. Astronomers think these triplet collisions, while extremely rare, play a critical role in how the biggest black holes grow over time.

The system is known as SDSS J084905.51+111447.2 (SDSS J0849+1114 for short) and is located a billion light years from Earth. In this graphic, X-rays from Chandra (purple) are shown in the pull-out in comparison with optical light from the Hubble Space Telescope and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (red, green, and blue) in the main panel.

Let’s Talk About Black Holes

Labeled illustration of a black hole
Credit: Illustration: ESO, ESA/Hubble, M.Kornmesser/N.Bartmann; Labels: NASA/CXC

Recently, we put out a press release about the regular dining habits of a supermassive black hole. Not only was this black hole found to be consuming material, or "eating," it was doing so regularly, about once every nine hours. While scientists had found such regular eating habits of smaller, so-called stellar mass black holes, this is the first evidence of such behavior in the black hole giants that live at the centers of galaxies.

The lead author of the result, which used data from both NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and ESA's XMM-Newton, is Giovanni Minuitti of the Center for Astrobiology (CAB, CSIC-INTA) in Spain. Recently, he agreed to answer a series of questions about his work aimed at kids.

How would you explain a supermassive black hole to kids?

Let me start from the beginning.

Any object with mass (a planet, a star, a black hole, and even our own bodies) produces a force — gravity — attracting towards it any other body with mass. Gravity is a force that is proportional to the mass of the object that produces it, and that is stronger if you are closer. Basically, the higher the mass of the body and the closer to the body you are, the stronger the pull you feel.

Scientists Discover Black Hole Has Three Hot Meals a Day

Image of GSN 069
GSN 069
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXO/CSIC-INTA/G.Miniutti et al.; Optical: DSS

A supermassive black hole is blasting out X-rays about every nine hours, according to data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and ESA's XMM-Newton, as described in our latest press release. This indicates that this black hole, containing about 400,000 times the mass of our Sun, is consuming significant amounts of material about three times per day.

The main panel of this graphic is a visible light image taken by the Digitized Sky Survey (DSS) around the galaxy known as GSN 069, located in the center of the image. The inset gives a time-lapse of Chandra data taken over a period of about 20 hours on February 14 and 15, 2019, centered on the X-ray source in the middle of GSN 069. The sequence runs in a loop to show that the X-ray brightness of the source changes regularly and dramatically over the Chandra observation. Three X-ray eruptions are observed. (Note that to clearly show the Chandra source is located in GSN 069, the size of the box in the center of the DSS image is about ten times larger than the Chandra field in the inset.)

The Latest Look at "First Light" from Chandra

Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/RIKEN/T. Sato et al.; Optical: NASA/STScI

Located about 11,000 light-years from Earth, Cas A (as it's nicknamed) is the glowing debris field left behind after a massive star exploded. When the star ran out of fuel, it collapsed onto itself and blew up as a supernova, possibly briefly becoming one of the brightest objects in the sky. (Although astronomers think that this happened around the year 1680, there are no verifiable historical records to confirm this.)

The shock waves generated by this blast supercharged the stellar wreckage and its environment, making the debris glow brightly in many types of light, particularly X-rays. Shortly after Chandra was launched aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia on July 23, 1999, astronomers directed the observatory to point toward Cas A. It was featured in Chandra's official “First Light” image, released Aug. 26, 1999, and marked a seminal moment not just for the observatory, but for the field of X-ray astronomy. Near the center of the intricate pattern of the expanding debris from the shattered star, the image revealed, for the first time, a dense object called a neutron star that the supernova left behind.

Did We Finally Detect the First Heavily Obscured Quasar in the Kindergarten of the Universe?

Fabio Vito
Fabio Vito

We are very pleased to welcome Fabio Vito as our guest blogger. Vito is the first author of a paper that is the subject of our latest press release, on the discovery of a distant, cloaked black hole. He obtained his PhD in 2014 at the University of Bologna, Italy, before moving to Penn State as a postdoctoral researcher. He is now a postdoctoral fellow at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. He mainly works on the properties and evolution of high-redshift AGN, with the final goal of understanding how they formed and grew in the first billion years of the Universe.

Imagine you are a teacher in a kindergarten starting the school year. You enter the classroom, but instead of finding little children, you see fully grown people — men and women — staring at you. Puzzled, you check with the principal, and they confirm that those people are supposed to be the new kindergarteners, just a handful of years old. Two things come to your mind immediately: 1) this is definitely going to be a very long school year, 2) what happened? Why are adults sitting in your kindergarten classroom?

Astrophysicists find themselves in a similar situation today. According to our theoretical knowledge, supermassive black holes (SMBHs) should grow from "seeds" with masses not larger than hundreds of thousands of solar masses. We then use the most powerful telescopes to find the most distant — both in space and in time — growing SMBHs, shining as “quasars,” about 13 billion years ago, when the Universe was just a few hundred million years old. We look for them because astronomers want to study how they grew to become the monsters that populate the older Universe, with masses of billions of solar masses. However, the SMBHs powering the quasars that we find in the kindergarten of the Universe are already fully grown! They are indeed already as massive as the most massive SMBHs in the local Universe.

Exploring New Paths of Study with Chandra

Chandra spacecraft image
Illustration: Chandra X-ray Observatory

We make progress in astrophysics in a variety of ways. There is the sort that starts along a defined path, driven by meticulous proposals for telescope time or detailed science justifications for new missions. The plan is to advance knowledge by traveling further than others, or clearing a broader path. And then there are others.

A big mission like NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory begins with plans for investigation along a slew of different directions and lines of study. At the time of Chandra's launch on July 23rd, 1999, scientists thought these paths would mainly follow studies of galaxy clusters, dark matter, black holes, supernovas, and young stars. Indeed, in the last 20 years we've learned about black holes ripping stars apart (reported eg in 2004, 2011 and 2017), about a black hole generating the deepest known note in the universe, about dark matter being wrenched apart from normal matter in the famous Bullet Cluster and similar objects, about the discovery of the youngest supernova remnant in our galaxy, and much more.


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