From JPL-Caltech: “NuSTAR Finds Cosmic Clumpy Doughnut Around Black Hole”

JPL-Caltech

December 17, 2015
Whitney Clavin
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California
818-354-4673
whitney.clavin@jpl.nasa.gov

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Galaxy NGC 1068 can be seen in close-up in this view from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

NASA Hubble Telescope
NASA/ESA Hubble

NuSTAR’s high-energy X-rays eyes were able to obtain the best view yet into the hidden lair of the galaxy’s central, supermassive black hole.

NASA NuSTAR
NASA/NuSTAR

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This active black hole is one of the most obscured known, meaning that it is surrounded by extremely thick clouds of gas and dust.

The NuSTAR data revealed that the torus of gas and dust surrounding the black hole, also referred to as a doughnut, is more clumpy than previously thought. doughnuts around active, supermassive black holes were originally proposed in the mid-1980s to be smooth entities. More recently, researchers have been finding that doughnuts are not so smooth but have lumps. NuSTAR’s latest finding shows that this is true for even the thickest of doughnuts.

NuSTAR is a Small Explorer mission led by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, also in Pasadena, for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The spacecraft was built by Orbital Sciences Corporation, Dulles, Virginia. Its instrument was built by a consortium including Caltech; JPL; the University of California, Berkeley; Columbia University, New York; NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland; the Danish Technical University in Denmark; Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore, California; ATK Aerospace Systems, Goleta, California, and with support from the Italian Space Agency (ASI) Science Data Center.

NuSTAR’s mission operations center is at UC Berkeley, with the ASI providing its equatorial ground station located at Malindi, Kenya. The mission’s outreach program is based at Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, California. NASA’s Explorer Program is managed by Goddard. JPL is managed by Caltech for NASA.

For more information, visit http://www.nasa.gov/nustar and http://www.nustar.caltech.edu/.

The most massive black holes in the universe are often encircled by thick, doughnut-shaped disks of gas and dust. This deep-space doughnut material ultimately feeds and nourishes the growing black holes tucked inside.

Until recently, telescopes weren’t able to penetrate some of these doughnuts, also known as tori.

“Originally, we thought that some black holes were hidden behind walls or screens of material that could not be seen through,” said Andrea Marinucci of the Roma Tre University in Italy, lead author of a new Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society study describing results from NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, and the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton space observatory.

With its X-ray vision, NuSTAR recently peered inside one of the densest of these doughnuts known to surround a supermassive black hole. This black hole lies at the center of a well-studied spiral galaxy called NGC 1068, located 47 million light-years away in the Cetus constellation.

The observations revealed a clumpy, cosmic doughnut.

“The rotating material is not a simple, rounded doughnut as originally thought, but clumpy,” said Marinucci.

Doughnut-shaped disks of gas and dust around supermassive black holes were first proposed in the mid-1980s to explain why some black holes are hidden behind gas and dust, while others are not. The idea is that the orientation of the doughnut relative to Earth affects the way we perceive a black hole and its intense radiation. If the doughnut is viewed edge-on, the black hole is blocked. If the doughnut is viewed face-on, the black hole and its surrounding, blazing materials can be detected. This idea is referred to as the unified model because it neatly joins together the different black hole types, based solely upon orientation.

In the past decade, astronomers have been finding hints that these doughnuts aren’t as smoothly shaped as once thought. They are more like defective, lumpy doughnuts that a doughnut shop might throw away.

The new discovery is the first time this clumpiness has been observed in an ultra-thick doughnut, and supports the idea that this phenomenon may be common. The research is important for understanding the growth and evolution of massive black holes and their host galaxies.

“We don’t fully understand why some supermassive black holes are so heavily obscured, or why the surrounding material is clumpy,” said co-author Poshak Gandhi of the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom. “This is a subject of hot research.”

Both NuSTAR and [ESA]XMM-Newton observed the supermassive black hole in NGC 1068 simultaneously on two occasions between 2014 to 2015.

ESA XMM Newton
ESA/XMM-Newton

On one of those occasions, in August 2014, NuSTAR observed a spike in brightness. NuSTAR observes X-rays in a higher-energy range than XMM-Newton, and those high-energy X-rays can uniquely pierce thick clouds around the black hole. The scientists say the spike in high-energy X-rays was due to a clearing in the thickness of the material entombing the supermassive black hole.

“It’s like a cloudy day, when the clouds partially move away from the sun to let more light shine through,” said Marinucci.

NGC 1068 is well known to astronomers as the first black hole to give birth to the unification idea. “But it is only with NuSTAR that we now have a direct glimpse of its black hole through such clouds, albeit fleeting, allowing a better test of the unification concept,” said Marinucci.

The team says that future research will address the question of what causes the unevenness in doughnuts. The answer could come in many flavors. It’s possible that a black hole generates turbulence as it chomps on nearby material. Or, the energy given off by young stars could stir up turbulence, which would then percolate outward through the doughnut. Another possibility is that the clumps may come from material falling onto the doughnut. As galaxies form, material migrates toward the center, where the density and gravity is greatest. The material tends to fall in clumps, almost like a falling stream of water condensing into droplets as it hits the ground.

“We’d like to figure out if the unevenness of the material is being generated from outside the doughnut, or within it,” said Gandhi.

“These coordinated observations with NuSTAR and XMM-Newton show yet again the exciting science possible when these satellites work together,” said Daniel Stern, NuSTAR project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

See the full article here.

Another simpler view of NGC 1068 from Hubble:
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