Volcanic-Like Eruptions in Black Holes Blow Cosmic Bubbles Spanning Light-Years

Astronomers have watched a supermassive black hole blowing out bubbles and filaments of hot gas that stretch for hundreds or thousands of light-years, affecting anything that stands in their way.

The discovery came as the team studied a grouping of galaxies with a supermassive black hole at their center, located 200 million light-years from Earth.

The researchers saw that as Nest20004's central supermassive black hole greedily feeds on matter surrounding it, the black hole launches powerful streams of particles. Initially traveling at speeds approaching that of light, these particles slow to form bubbles and filaments of hot gas, which the team found, stretch much further than astronomers had previously known.

These structures, which impact the rates of star formation in surrounding galaxies, are analogous to smoke streams dispersed in Earth's atmosphere by volcanic eruptions.

The team's findings are discussed in a paper published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

"Our investigation shows how the gas bubbles accelerated by the black hole are expanding and transforming in time. Indeed, they create spectacular mushroom-shaped structures, rings, and filaments that are similar to those originating from a powerful volcanic eruption on planet Earth," lead author and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bologna, at the Italian National Astrophysics Institute INAF, Marisa Brienza, said in a statement from the Netherlands Institutes for Radio Astronomy (ASTRON).

Supermassive black holes are believed by scientists to exist at the center of most galaxies. Because they have masses as great as millions, or even billions, of times that of the sun, these enormous black holes exert a massive gravitational influence and are thus often surrounded by a disc of gas and dust, that gradually "feeds" to them. These regions at the center of galaxies are known as Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN).

"In this process, large amounts of energy are released in different forms. Sometimes this energy comes in the form of particle streams moving close to the speed of light and producing radio waves," Brienza explained. "In turn, these streams generate bubbles of particles and magnetic fields that, while expanding, can heat and move the intergalactic medium surrounding them."

Brienza added that this has an immense influence on the evolution of the intergalactic medium itself and, eventually, sets the rhythm at which galaxies form stars and, therefore, how they evolve.

She continued by explaining that the discovery marks the first time that AGN bubbles have been mapped in fine detail over timescales of hundreds of millions of years and over thousands of light-years.

Jets Emit By A Supermassive Black Hole
An image that shows how jets emitted by a active galactic nuclei appear in different wavelengths of light. New research shows these jets extend for thousands of light-years. STScI; radio: NSF/NRAO/VLA./NASA

The team was able to make this new observation by using the Low-Frequency Array (LOFAR) and the extended Roentgen Survey with an Imaging Telescope Array (eROSITA).

The telescopes allowed the team to effectively travel back in time by 100 million years to observe this eruption from a supermassive black hole and then map the eruption as it travels through galaxies impacting their development.

ASTRON compares this mapping to the archeological investigations centered around the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD which destroyed the ancient Roman city of Pompeii.

"For many years researchers have been trying to figure out how much of the surrounding area a black hole can influence," study coauthor and ASTRON researcher, Timothy Shimwell, said. "The images we have created of this incredible system show that the answer is astonishingly large.

"The black hole doesn't just influence the host galaxy but instead it impacts a vast intergalactic environment which may contain hundreds of other galaxies, and it will affect aspects such as the rate at which stars form in those galaxies."

Supermassive Black Hole
An artist's impression of a supermassive black hole feeding on material and belching out powerful jets of gas. New research has found these jets form bubbles that are similar to volcanic gas spewed into the atmosphere of Earth by active volcanoes. Nustar-Caltech/NASA