Supermassive Black Hole Hiding at the Heart of a Galaxy Changes the Whole Neighborhood

An artist's impression of a quasar (not 3C 298). NASA/ESA/G.Bacon, STScI

Astronomers have long suspected that supermassive black holes at the hearts of galaxies could probably shape their environment—but they hadn't been able to catch one in the act and figure out precisely what it might be doing. Now, they think they have, spotting its powerful winds tamping down star formation even across the galaxy, according to a new paper published in The Astrophysical Journal.

"Understanding why and how galaxies are affected by their supermassive black holes is an outstanding puzzle in their formation," co-author Shelley Wright, an astrophysicist at the University of California, San Diego, said in a press release. "This is remarkable that the supermassive black hole is able to impact stars forming at such large distances."

The scientists studied a quasar, a super-bright stellar object powered by a supermassive black hole (black holes themselves can't easily be studied because they don't emit any light for telescopes to gather). Their target, a quasar known as 3C 298, is so far away that astronomers are seeing it as it would have been 9.3 billion years ago.

"We study supermassive black holes in the very early universe when they are actively growing by accreting massive amounts of gaseous material," said Wright. "While black holes themselves do not emit light, the gaseous material they chew on is heated to extreme temperatures, making them the most luminous objects in the universe."

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The team found that the galaxy around 3C 298 has about 100 times less matter in it than they would have expected to find around a supermassive black hole the size of 3C 298's.Since the number of stars and their mass influence galaxy mass, the researchers became suspicious that the supermassive black hole and its quasar have reduced star formation, at least in certain neighborhoods of the galaxy.

Not all galaxies hide a quasar at their heart, but all quasars are tucked away at the center of a galaxy. There, they produce hugely strong winds, which may even produce, or at least spread, tiny, dust-sized gemstones. The study's authors think those winds may be the key factor that's shaped 3C 298.

Because there are about 2,000 quasars already known to science, if the same phenomenon is playing out in every galaxy with a quasar, that could hugely impact the universe—which is why scientists want to study 3C 298 and its compatriots in more detail.