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Black Hole Fails to Do Its Job, Unleashing a Remarkable Torrent of Star Formation

Astronomers have discovered what can happen when a giant black hole does not intervene in the life of a galaxy cluster. Using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and other telescopes they have shown that passive black hole behavior may explain a remarkable torrent of star formation occurring in a distant cluster of galaxies.

Galaxy clusters contain hundreds or thousands of galaxies pervaded by hot, X-ray emitting gas that outweighs the combined mass of all the galaxies. Ejections of material powered by a supermassive black hole in the cluster’s central galaxy usually prevent this hot gas from cooling to form vast numbers of stars. This heating allows supermassive black holes to influence or control the activity and evolution of their host cluster.

But what happens if that black hole stops being active? The galaxy cluster SpARCS104922.6+564032.5 (SpARCS1049 for short) located 9.9 billion light-years away from Earth is supplying one answer.

Based on observations from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and Spitzer Space Telescope, astronomers had previously discovered stars were forming at an extraordinary rate of about 900 new Suns worth of mass per year in SpARCS1049. This is over 300 times faster than the rate at which our galaxy, the Milky Way, is forming its stars.  (At the rate seen in SpARCS1049, all of the stars in the Milky Way could form in just 100 million years, which is a short period of time compared to our Galaxy’s age of more than ten billion years.)

“It reminds me of the old expression of ‘when the cat’s away, the mice will play,’” said Julie Hlavacek-Larrondo of the University of Montreal in Canada, who led the study. “Here the cat, or black hole, is quiet and the mice, or stars, are very busy.”

This furious star formation is happening about 80,000 light-years away from the center of SpARCS1049 in a region outside any of the cluster’s galaxies. Astronomers have been asking: what is causing this prodigious cycle of star birth?

Galaxy Cluster SpARCS104922.6+564032.5

Galaxy Cluster SpARCS104922.6+564032.5. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXO/Univ. of Montreal/J. Hlavacek-Larrondo et al; Optical: NASA/STScI

The answer may come from new Chandra data revealing the behavior of the hot gas in SpARCS1049. In most of the cluster, the temperature of the gas is about 65 million degrees. However, at the site of star formation the gas is denser than average and has cooled off to a temperature of only about 10 million degrees. The presence of this cooler gas suggests that other undetected gas reservoirs have cooled to even lower temperatures that enable huge numbers of stars to form.

“Without the black hole actively pumping energy into its surroundings, the gas can cool enough so this impressive rate of star formation can happen,” said co-author Carter Rhea, also of the University of Montreal. “This kind of black hole shut down may be a crucial way for stars to form in the early Universe.”

While there are many examples where energy injected by black holes into their surroundings is responsible for reducing the rate of star formation by factors of tens or thousands or more, these clusters are typically only a few hundred million light-years from Earth and are much older than SpARCS1049.

In the case of SpARCS1049, astronomers do not see any signs that a supermassive black hole in the central galaxy is actively pulling in matter. For example, there is no evidence for a jet of material blowing away from the black hole at radio wavelengths, or of an X-ray source from the middle of the galaxy indicating that matter was heated as it fell towards a black hole.

“Many astronomers have thought that without the intervention from a black hole, the formation of stars would run out of control,” said co-author Tracy Webb of McGill, who first discovered SpARCS1049 in 2015 with NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. “Now we have observational proof that this is indeed what takes place.”

Why is the black hole so quiet? The observed difference in position between the densest gas and the central galaxy might be the cause. This would mean that the supermassive black hole in the center of this galaxy is being starved for fuel. The loss of a fuel source for the black hole prevents outbursts and allows the gas to cool without impediment, with the densest gas cooling the fastest. One explanation for this offset is that two smaller galaxy clusters collided at some point in the past to create SpARCS1049, moving the densest gas away from the central galaxy.

A paper describing these results was published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters and is available online.

Reference: “Evidence of Runaway Gas Cooling in the Absence of Supermassive Black Hole Feedback at the Epoch of Cluster Formation” by J. Hlavacek-Larrondo, C. L. Rhea, T. Webb, M. McDonald, A. Muzzin, G. Wilson, K. Finner, F. Valin, N. Bonaventura, M. Cooper, A. C. Fabian, M.-L. Gendron-Marsolais, M. J. Jee, C. Lidman, M. Mezcua, A. Noble, H. R. Russell, J. Surace, A. Trudeau and H. K. C. Yee, 3 August 2020, The Astrophysical Journal Letters.
DOI: 10.3847/2041-8213/ab9ca5
arXiv: 2007.15660

NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center manages the Chandra program. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s Chandra X-ray Center controls science and flight operations from Cambridge and Burlington, Massachusetts.

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  • "Passive" black holes that "stop being active"?!?!?" You've got to be kidding. Let me get this straight. So now instead of black hole preventing star formation, we're supposed to believe that they unleash a remarkable torrent of star formation???

    Yet another magical thing that black holes can now do. The fudge factor for these guys just never stops. And yes, let's tie it our speculationsinto cosmic origins for good measure, and wait, something has to collide, so let's just say that two smaller galaxy clusters collided at some point. And voila, another cookie cutter ad hoc pile of hot steaming assumptions has saved the day yet again.

    If you can't arrange a means to scientifically disprove your assumptions, you're not conducting science, and will always be prejudiced by you're assumptions.

  • No offense, but exploratory science is just that. A lot of conjecture and theories, which are then explored and tried to be proven, or disproven. Science says that if something can not be disproved then it must be possible, no matter how far fetched it may seem. Many of Einstein’s theories are only just being confirmed now 75+ years later. Rather than just writing off these thoughts, how bout embrace and enlighten yourself to the possibilities.

    • All good points. My contrarian attitude to the state of current cosmology though is that the conjecture and theories are not presented as such by and large, but are stated as fact. This includes black holes, big bang, the age of the universe, planet formation, dark matter, dark energy, expansion. And inevitably, when new observations completely contradict these beliefs stated as facts, there's never serious questioning of these beliefs. All observations MUST fit into these beliefs, not matter how contorted the universe has to become to do so. My wish is that they apply skepticism to their beliefs (another scientific tenant) and embrace and enlighten themselves to other possibilities. And the further you are from strict scientific, controlled experimental method, the more skeptical you should be of any theory.

      • BBC, you said your objection is that "the conjecture and theories are not presented as such by and large, but are stated as fact." Rereading the article, I'm unsure what evidence you are basing your claim on.

        One scientist (Webb) is quoted as saying “Many astronomers *have thought that* without the intervention from a black hole, the formation of stars *would* run out of control” (emphasis added). That sounds to me like scientists had a plethora of observational evidence to consider, and formed hypotheses about what would happen in a specific hypothetical situation - i.e., one of the beginning stages in the scientific method. Due to the nature of the field, it is functionally impossible to run a traditional, laboratory controlled "experiment" to specifically test these hypotheses, so they remained just that: hypotheses, unconfirmed but not disproven - perhaps best described, more colloquially, as "suspicions." Certainly not "stated as fact."

        Furthermore, you also object that "inevitably, when new observations completely contradict these beliefs stated as facts, there’s never serious questioning of these beliefs." … Again, I'm not quite sure where you're getting this from? In this case, the new observation was literally an exact test of the hypothesis - and from what I can tell, almost as neatly controlled as if it had actually been designed to be conducted in a laboratory - i.e.:
        H0 - Black holes have no effect (or a strengthening effect) on the production of stars.
        H1 - Black holes have a dampening effect on the production of stars.
        Hypothesis: In the absence of a nearby black hole, star production will be greatly increased (because *something* about black holes drastically reduces star production in their vicinity).

        And… that is literally exactly what happened? As Webb said, “Now we have observational proof that this is indeed what takes place.”

        The only thing I can think of is that you might have misread the article? You also said "it’s been contended for a very long time that stars can’t form near a black holes, but wait, they’re doing it, so now we’ll shuffle the deck and try to put together yet another speculation that hopefully sounds plausible for how they can now generate star formation." … The whole point of this article was that, yes, it's been contended that stars can't form near black holes, and here we now have a situation where the black hole is *not behaving like a typical black hole* ("In the case of SpARCS1049, astronomers do not see any signs that a supermassive black hole in the central galaxy is actively pulling in matter. For example, there is no evidence for a jet of material blowing away from the black hole at radio wavelengths, or of an X-ray source from the middle of the galaxy indicating that matter was heated as it fell towards a black hole") ...and - voila - stars are, in fact, forming. I'm not sure why it's unreasonable to see that and think "Hmm, that seems to line up with what we expected would happen!"

        The question then instead becomes: Why isn't the black hole behaving like normal? And even the answers given for that are clearly stated in the form of suggested possibilities, just as you would see in the research implications section of any published, peer-reviewed scientific article, from sociology to biochemistry: "Why is the black hole so quiet? The observed difference in position between the densest gas and the central galaxy *MIGHT* be the cause. This *would* mean.... *ONE* explanation for this offset is...." (emphasis added).

        You say, "All observations MUST fit into these beliefs, not matter how contorted the universe has to become to do so. My wish is that they apply skepticism to their beliefs (another scientific tenant) and embrace and enlighten themselves to other possibilities." I will admit, I am certainly not knowledgeable enough about cosmology to know whether this is genuinely a problem with the field as a whole, but I agree that science should continue to function in - well, in a *scientific* manner. I'm just not sure what in this article led you to come to this conclusion, so I have to suppose that perhaps your frustration was directed less at this article specifically and more at other, previous encounters with the field.

        Finally, you say, "the further you are from strict scientific, controlled experimental method, the more skeptical you should be of any theory." Absolutely. That's definitely true. However, I'm wondering, if this is something you feel so strongly about… Perhaps cosmology is simply not the field for you?

        • Thanks for taking the time to explain how science is working here but I can't help thinking "You responded to a troll and died."

  • To BBC. I'm afraid you have misunderstood their thesis. An active black hole that spews out energy derived from signalling matter lessens star formation due to that energy heating free gases to the point that they do not form stars.
    Inactive black holes seem not to spew out energy due to a lessened or paucity of installing matter. Therefore the free gases do not heat up as much and can form stars at a greater rate.
    No magic or special assumptions just different types of black holes causing different outcomes.

    • I understand the thesis. I just take exception to virtually all of cosmology being based on undetectable imaginative supernatural "forces," and it's been contended for a very long time that stars can't form near a black holes, but wait, they're doing it, so now we'll shuffle the deck and try to put together yet another speculation that hopefully sounds plausible for how they can now generate star formation. Data is one thing, interpretation of data is another, and the interpretations can't be verified by experimentation, at least not black holes and all the other supernatural forces that form the bedrock of cosmology. Please show me another "science" that is based on undetectable highly imagined (imaginary) supernatural forces, outside of religion.

    • They black hole didn't fail....what a poor choice of wording !!!! awful choice as it implies the black hole had options, choices to make that it messed up on...like it is concious.
      The variables outside of the black hole are the difference here !!!! Remember they have no hair!!! Any given black hole would act the same as this one given it had equal mass.

  • The world is flat and space is faked we can't leave this place nothing can penetrate the firmament

  • "black holes, big bang, the age of the universe, planet formation, dark matter, dark energy"....
    These things are not,"stated as fact," as you say, but stated as theory— and everything you just named are things that are backed up by decades of observations that continue to fit into and strengthen the theory (usually relativity) behind it — nothing "supernatural" about it, unless you believe that things we can't experience first-hand or just seem too wierd must be "beliefs/conjecture/guesswork." (Of course that means it is you that is the one beholden to beliefs and conjecture.)

    "When new observations completely contradict these beliefs stated as facts, there’s never serious questioning of these beliefs"...
    What "new observations completely contradict" dark energy, for example? I'm pretty sure such observations would be big news, seeing as how the Nobel committee fell for its discoverers' non-sceintific, "supernatural" shenanigans.
    I guess what I'm saying is, when you get to the glass dome that surrounds the flat discus we all live on, send us a picture...

  • I've always wondered if black holes could have white holes too...and that this is an example of a black hole spewing it's matter to another location. In perhaps from another universe, or even from hundreds of thousands of light years away...or millions.

    At the same time? Sure, why couldn't a black hole fail? Kind of like a stone thrown in water...a brief collapse and then it jettisons water out, effectively cancelling itself out, where it fails to creating a lasting effect.

    • Theoretically white holes do exist, and it's been recently explored that one may be the origin of the Big Bang. This is obviously impossible to observe, similar to why we can't observe the inside of a black hole, but it's an interesting thought. The math checks out and suggests that white holes should exist, so why couldn't it be possible that the creation of every black hole also corresponds with an unobservable white hole that generates an entirely new universe?

  • @Anothergreg
    Nice! I've heard of white holes, but only associated with the yet to be discovered worm
    hole. It is an interesting thought. Along side the theory that we exist inside a black hole, since day one. Essentially that the big bang also created the black home we exist in today, and that the outside universe is inperceivable to us? There's a very interesting YouTube channel on the too 5 theories which mathemtically check out. I think it's called "five theories that will blow your mind."

  • ... could the black whole be like recycle bin that is used to recycle used up star materials...
    Just more questions....

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