February 19, 2015
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California
NASA Headquarters, Washington
Supermassive black holes at the cores of galaxies blast radiation and ultra-fast winds outward, as illustrated in this artist’s conception. New data from NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) and the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) XMM-Newton telescopes show that these winds, which contain gases of highly ionized atoms, blow in a nearly spherical fashion, emanating in every direction, as shown in the artwork. The findings rule out the possibility that the winds blow in narrow beams.
With the shape and extent of the winds known, the researchers were able to determine the winds’ strength. The high-speed winds are powerful enough to shut down star formation throughout a galaxy.
The galaxy Messier 101 (M101, also known as NGC 5457 and also nicknamed the Pinwheel Galaxy) lies in the northern circumpolar constellation, Ursa Major (The Great Bear), at a distance of about 21 million light-years from Earth. This is one of the largest and most detailed photo of a spiral galaxy that has been released from Hubble. The galaxy’s portrait is actually composed of 51 individual Hubble exposures, in addition to elements from images from ground-based photos [CFHT image: Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope/J.-C. Cuillandre/Coelum NOAO image: George Jacoby, Bruce Bohannan, Mark Hanna/NOAO/AURA/NSF.
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.
This plot of data from two space telescopes, NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) and the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) XMM-Newton determines for the first time the shape of ultra-fast winds from supermassive black holes, or quasars. The winds blow in every direction, in a nearly spherical fashion, coming from both sides of a galaxy (only one side is shown here).
The plot shows the brightness of X-ray light from an extremely luminous quasar called PDS 456, with the highest-energy rays on the right. XMM-Newton sees lower-energy X-rays, and NuSTAR, higher. XMM Newton had previously observed the extremely luminous quasar, called PDS 456, on its own in 2001. At that time, it had measured the X-rays up to an energy level of 11 kiloelectron volts. From those data, researchers detected a dip in the X-ray light, called an absorption feature (see dip in plot). The dip is caused by iron atoms — which are carried by the winds along with other matter — absorbing the X-ray light of a particular energy. What’s more, the absorption feature is ‘blueshifted,” meaning that the winds are speeding toward us (like a train’s whistle shifting to higher frequencies as it races toward you).
In other words, the 2001 XMM-Newton data had told researchers that at least some of the winds were blowing toward us — but they didn’t reveal whether those winds were confined to a narrow beam along our line of sight, or were blowing in all directions. That’s because XMM-Newton had only detected absorption features, which by definition occur in front of a light source, in this case, the quasar. To probe what was happening to at sides of the quasar, the astronomers needed to find a different type of feature called an emission feature. These occur when iron scatters X-ray light at a particular energy in all directions, not only toward the observer.
Enter NuSTAR to the X-ray astronomy scene, a high-energy X-ray telescope that was launched in 2012. NuSTAR and XMM-Newton teamed up to observe PDS 456 simultaneously in 2013 and 2014. The results are shown in this plot. NuSTAR data are represented as orange circles and XMM-Newton as blue squares. The NuSTAR data reveal the baseline of the “continuum” quasar light (see gray line) — or what the quasar would look like without any winds. What stands out is the bump to the left of the dips. That’s an iron emission signature, the telltale sign that the black hole winds blow to the sides and in all directions.
XMM-Newton might have seen the emission feature before, but the feature couldn’t be identified until NuSTAR’s elucidated the baseline quasar light. For example, had the X-ray winds been confined to a beam, then NuSTAR would have seen more brightness at the higher end of the X-ray spectrum, and there would have been no iron emission feature.
The results demonstrate that, in some cases, two telescopes are better than one at solving tricky problems. By observing the entire X-ray energy range, the astronomers were able to get a more complete picture of what is happening around the quasar.
“We know black holes in the centers of galaxies can feed on matter, and this process can produce winds. This is thought to regulate the growth of the galaxies,” said Fiona Harrison of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, California. Harrison is the principal investigator of NuSTAR and a co-author on a new paper about these results appearing in the journal Science. “Knowing the speed, shape and size of the winds, we can now figure out how powerful they are.”
Supermassive black holes blast matter into their host galaxies, with X-ray-emitting winds traveling at up to one-third the speed of light. In the new study, astronomers determined PDS 456, an extremely bright black hole known as a quasar more than 2 billion light-years away, sustains winds that carry more energy every second than is emitted by more than a trillion suns.
“Now we know quasar winds significantly contribute to mass loss in a galaxy, driving out its supply of gas, which is fuel for star formation,” said the study’s lead author, Emanuele Nardini of Keele University in England.
“This is a great example of the synergy between XMM-Newton and NuSTAR,” said Norbert Schartel, XMM-Newton project scientist at ESA. “The complementarity of these two X-ray observatories is enabling us to unveil previously hidden details about the powerful side of the universe.”
“For an astronomer, studying PDS 456 is like a paleontologist being given a living dinosaur to study,” said study co-author Daniel Stern of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. “We are able to investigate the physics of these important systems with a level of detail not possible for those found at more typical distances, during the ‘Age of Quasars.'”
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Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is a federally funded research and development center and NASA field center located in the San Gabriel Valley area of Los Angeles County, California, United States. Although the facility has a Pasadena postal address, it is actually headquartered in the city of La Cañada Flintridge , on the northwest border of Pasadena. JPL is managed by the nearby California Institute of Technology (Caltech) for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Laboratory’s primary function is the construction and operation of robotic planetary spacecraft, though it also conducts Earth-orbit and astronomy missions. It is also responsible for operating NASA’s Deep Space Network.