Supermassive Black Holes In Distant Galaxies Are Mysteriously Aligned

A supermassive black hole has been found in an unusual spot: an isolated region of space where only small, dim galaxies reside. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In 1974, astronomers detected a massive source of radio wave emissions coming from the center of our galaxy. Within a few decades time, it was concluded that the radio wave source corresponded to a particularly large, spinning black hole. Known as Sagittarius A, this particular black hole is so large that only the designation “supermassive” would do. Since its discovery, astronomers have come to conclude that supermassive black holes (SMBHs) lie at the center of almost all of the known massive galaxies.

But thanks to a recent radio imaging by a team of researchers from the University of Cape Town and University of the Western Cape, in South Africa, it has been further determined that in a region of the distant universe, the SMBHs are all spinning out radio jets in the same direction. This finding, which shows an alignment of the jets of galaxies over a large volume of space, is the first of its kind, and could tell us much about the early Universe.

This research, which appeared recently in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, was made possible thanks to a three-year deep radio imaging survey conducted by the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) in India. After examining the radio waves coming from a region of space called ELAIS-N1, the South African research team found that the jets being produced by these galaxies were all in alignment.

This finding could only be explained by venturing that the SMBHs creating them were all spinning in the same direction, which in turn reveals something rather interesting about how these black holes came to be. In essence, the only likely reason why multiple SMBHs could be spinning in the same direction over a large volume of space is if they were the result of primordial mass fluctuations in the early universe.

As Prof. Andrew Russ Taylor – the joint UWC/UCT SKA Chair, Director of the recently-launched Inter-University Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy, and principal author of the Monthly Notices study – explained: “Since these black holes don’t know about each other, or have any way of exchanging information or influencing each other directly over such vast scales, this spin alignment must have occurred during the formation of the galaxies in the early universe.”

This was rather surprising, and something the research team wasn’t prepared for. Initially, the goal of the project was to explore the faintest radio sources in the universe using the latest generation of radio telescopes; which, it was hoped, would provide a preview of what the next-generation of telescopes like South Africa’s MeerKAT telescope and the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will provide once they go online.

While previous studies have shown that there are deviations in the orientations of certain galaxies, this was the first time that astronomers were able to use the jets produced by the SMBA holes to reveal their alignments. After noting the symmetry that was apparent between them, the research team considered several options as to why an alignment in galaxies (even on scales larger than galaxy clusters) might be.

However, it is important to note that a large-scale spin distribution of this kind has never been predicted by theories. Such an unknown phenomenon certainly presents a challenge when it comes to prevailing theories about the origins of the Universe, which will have to be revised somewhat to account for this.

While earlier studies have detected deviations from uniformity in the orientations of galaxies, this was the first time that radio jets were used to measure their alignment. This was made possible thanks to the sensitivity of the radio images used, which also benefitted from the fact that measurements of the intensity of radio emissions are not effected by things like scattering, extinction and Faraday Rotation (which may have effected other studies).

Furthermore, the presence of alignments of this nature could shed light on the orientation and evolution of these galaxies, particularly in relation to large-scale structures. They could also help astronomer to learn more about the motions in the primordial matter fluctuations that gave rise to the current structure of the Universe. As Taylor and the other authors of the paper also note, it will be interesting to compare this with predictions of angular momentum structure from universe simulations.

In recent years, several simulations have been produced to model the large-sale structure of the Universe and how it evolved. These include, but are not limited to, the FastSound project – which has been surveying galaxies in the Universe using the Subaru Telescope’s Fiber Multi-Object Spectrograph (FMOS) – and the DESI Project, which will rely on the Mayall Telescope at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona to chart the history of the Universe going back 11 billion years and create an extremely precise 3D map.

And then there’s the Australian Square-Kilometer Array Pathfinder (ASKAP), a radio telescope currently being commissioned by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) in Western Australia. When completed, the ASKAP array will combine fast survey speed and high sensitivity to study the early Universe.

In the coming years, these projects, combined with this new information about the alignments of supermassive black holes, are likely to shed some serious light on how the Universe came to be, from creation to the present day. As Taylor puts it, “We’re beginning to understand how the large-scale structure of the universe came about, starting from the Big Bang and growing as a result of disturbances in the early universe, to what we have today, and that helps us explore what the universe of tomorrow will be like.”

Further Reading: Royal Astronomical Society

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Are Supermassive Black Holes Hiding Matter?

Illustris simulation, showing the distribution of dark matter in 350 million by 300,000 light years. Galaxies are shown as high-density white dots (left) and as normal, baryonic matter (right). Credit: Markus Haider/Illustris

Mapping the Universe with satellites and ground-based observatories have not only provided scientists with a pretty good understanding of its structure, but also of its composition. And for some time now, they have been working with a model that states that the Universe consists of 4.9% “normal” matter (i.e. that which we can see), 26.8% “dark matter” (that which we can’t), and 68.3% “dark energy”.

From what they have observed, scientists have also concluded that the normal matter in the Universe is concentrated in web-like filaments, which make up about 20% of the Universe by volume. But a recent study performed by the Institute of Astro- and Particle Physics at the University of Innsbruck in Austria has found that a surprising amount of normal matter may live in the voids, and that black holes may have deposited it there.

In a paper submitted to the Royal Astronomical Society, Dr. Haider and his team described how they performed measurements of the mass and volume of the Universe’s filamentary structures to get a better idea of where the Universe’s mass is located. To do this, they used data from the Illustris project – a large computer simulation of the evolution and formation of galaxies.

As an ongoing research project run by an international collaboration of scientists (and using supercomputers from around the world), Illustris has created the most detailed simulations of our Universe to date. Beginning with conditions roughly 300,000 years after the Big Bang, these simulations track how gravity and the flow of matter changed the structure of the cosmos up to the present day, roughly 13.8 billion years later.

The process begins with the supercomputers simulating a cube of space in the universe, which measures some 350 million light years on each side. Both normal and dark matter are dealt with, particularly the gravitational effect that dark matter has on normal matter. Using this data, Haider and his team noticed something very interesting about the distribution of matter in the cosmos.

Essentially, they found that about 50% of the total mass of the Universe is compressed into a volume of 0.2%, consisting of the galaxies we see. A further 44% is located in the enveloping filaments, consisting of gas particles and dust. The remaining 6% is located in the empty spaces that fall between them (aka. the voids), which make up 80% of the Universe.

However, a surprising faction of this normal matter (20%) appears to have been transported there, apparently by the supermassive black holes located at the center of galaxies. The method for this delivery appears to be in how black holes convert some of the matter that regularly falls towards them into energy, which is then delivered to the sounding gas, leading to large outflows of matter.

These outflows stretch for hundreds of thousands of lights years beyond the host galaxy, filling the void with invisible mass. As Dr. Haider explains, these conclusions supported by this data are rather startling. “This simulation,” he said, “one of the most sophisticated ever run, suggests that the black holes at the center of every galaxy are helping to send matter into the loneliest places in the universe. What we want to do now is refine our model, and confirm these initial findings.”

The findings are also significant because they just may offer an explanation to the so-called “missing baryon problem”. In short, this problem describes how there is an apparent discrepancy between our current cosmological models and the amount of normal matter we can see in the Universe. Even when dark matter and dark energy are factored in, half of the remaining 4.9% of the Universe’s normal matter still remains unaccounted for.

For decades, scientists have been working to find this “missing matter”, and several suggestions have been made as to where it might be hiding. For instance, in 2011, a team of students at the Monash School of Physics in Australia confirming that some of it was in the form of low-density, high energy matter that could only be observed in the x-ray wavelength.

https://youtu.be/NjSFR40SY58

In 2012, using data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory, a NASA research team reported that our galaxy, and the nearby Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, were surrounded by an enormous halo of hot gas that was invisible at normal wavelengths. These findings indicated that all galaxies may be surrounded by mass that, while not visible to the naked eye, is nevertheless detectable using current methods.

And just days ago, researchers from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) described how they had used fast radio bursts (FRBs) to measure the density of cosmic baryons in the intergalactic medium – which yielded results that seem to indicate that our current cosmological models are correct.

Factor in all the mass that is apparently being delivered to the void by supermassive black holes, and it could be that we finally have a complete inventory of all the normal matter of the Universe. This is certainly an exciting prospect, as it means that one of the greatest cosmological mysteries of our time could finally be solved.

Now if we could just account for the “abnormal” matter in the Universe, and all that dark energy, we’d be in business!

Further Reading: Royal Astronomical Society

The post Are Supermassive Black Holes Hiding Matter? appeared first on Universe Today.

Weekly Space Hangout – February 27, 2015

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