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A Supermassive Black Hole Is Shooting Out Cosmic Exhaust

Black holes have long been one of the most awe-inspiring and mysterious objects in our universe, and as our stargazing technology improves, the black hole-related discoveries just keep on coming. Earlier this year, a University of Surrey study reported the discovery of a cluster of hundreds of black holes, and the Hubble space telescope recently captured the first images of the birth of a black hole. Now, new paper published in Astrophysical Journal Letters is reporting another black hole first: a supermassive black hole directly a emitting cloud of exhaust known as an accretion disc.

The accretion disc emitted by the black hole, here colored in green, obscures the black hole from view.

The accretion disc emitted by the black hole, here colored in green, obscures the black hole from view.

The effects of black holes on their surrounding galaxies and objects has been previously unknown and a topic of much speculation. This study is the first to gather data which shows that black holes can actually emit matter in the form of large clouds or discs of dust which were previously thought to be the remnants of objects or bodies that have fallen victim to the black hole’s gravitational pull.

Accretion discs were previously thought to be the remnants of objects as they succumb to black holes' gravity.

Accretion discs were previously thought to be the remnants of objects as they succumb to black holes’ gravity.

According to the quite technical publication, the black hole is surrounded by a large doughnut-shaped ring of dust and atomic matter that effectively makes the black hole invisible to most telescopes:

[…] the torus is made of gas processed by the accretion disk and expelled outwards in a disk wind; the outflow inner part is atomic and ionized, giving rise to broad line emission, its outer regions are molecular and dusty, resulting in a compact (well within the BH gravitational potential), axisymmetric obscuring structure that mimics a hydrostatic toroidal distribution.

Whew, the vocabulary in that quote make brain no work so good. Jack Gallimore, an astronomer at Bucknell University and lead author of this study, claims that this data is the first to show that the invisibility-cloak-like toruses that can hide black holes are actually the exhaust from the black holes themselves:

These clouds are traveling so fast that they reach ‘escape velocity’ and are jettisoned in a cone-like spray from both sides of the disk. With ALMA, we can for the first time see that it is the gas that is thrown out that hides the black hole, not the gas falling in.

The galaxy containing the black hole is known as NGC 1068, or Messier 77, and lies close to 50 million light years away in the direction of the Cetus constellation. The data was collected by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile which happens to bear the distinction as the most expensive ground-based telescope on Earth.