Black hole erupts in nearby galaxy

By Phil Plait | August 20, 2010 7:00 am

Some 60 million light years from Earth is the monster galaxy M87. It’s a massive elliptical galaxy, one of the largest such in the nearby Universe… if you count 600 quintillion kilometers away as "nearby".

And when it comes to the Universe, I do.

It sits in the center of the Virgo cluster, a collection of roughly 1500 galaxies all bound to each other by gravity. At the heart of M87 is one of the biggest black holes ever seen: something like 6 billion times the mass of the Sun (the Milky Way has one as well, but it’s a paltry 4 million solar masses). It’s called a supermassive black hole, and it’s active. That means it’s a sloppy eater: as matter falls in to the hole, it piles up outside and forms a giant disk, which gets hot… millions of degrees hot. The tremendous heat and other titanic forces join up to blast away a huge amount of the otherwise incoming material. It’s not a nice, neat process, and when a black hole on that scale lets out a belch, it’s felt for hundreds of trillions of kilometers… as you can see in this image:


[Click to supermassivize.]

This is a composite of two images, one taken in radio wavelengths by the Very Large Array (in red) and the other in X-rays by the orbiting Chandra Observatory (in blue). The X-rays are being emitted by gas blasting away from the black hole, heated up by the disk and the magnetic fields affiliated with the hole itself. The radio waves are from gas that previously existed outside and farther away from the black hole, which is being slammed into, stirred up, and swept away by the outflowing gas.

chandra_m87shockThe Chandra image alone shows that better. The thin oval of X-ray emitting gas marks the location off a vast shock wave, just like the sonic boom off a jet fighter. It looks like at some point in the past, the black hole erupted, exploding like a volcano and spewing out a vast sheet of material. As it expanded, it collided with the gas already there, compressing it, and creating the ring of shocked material.

Clusters of galaxies have lots of extremely hot gas floating around between the galaxies. It was once thought that this gas would cool by emitting X-rays, then fall to the center of the cluster, where it could form stars. These are called "cooling flows", and a lot of work was done on them in the 1990s. But this image shows us the reality is more complicated. The infalling gas has to deal with outflowing gas from the black hole, and a balance of sorts is achieved. But it’s a dynamic balance: lots of motion, shock waves, eruptions, and the blasting out of energy on a colossal scale. In one single second, M87 gives off as much energy in X-rays as the Sun does across the electromagnetic spectrum in an entire year!

So yeah, colossal.

vla_m87The upshot is that all that infalling gas gets stirred up and can’t form stars. The constant wind — and sometimes eruptive explosions — from the black hole prevents it, and so millions, maybe even billions of stars never get the chance to be born.

I’ll note that this news isn’t exactly new. The VLA image is from 1999*, when it was seen that the infalling gas must have been balanced by the gas moving out. But the Chandra image shows the detail of it, how the two are colliding, and how violent and complex the interaction is. Even as our technology improves and we get clearer and more detailed images, old observations and new together tell us a lot more.

Image credits: X-ray (NASA/CXC/KIPAC/N. Werner, E. Million et al); Radio (NRAO/AUI/NSF/F. Owen)

*And, for obvious reasons, was included in my talk at w00tstock (which also has video).

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (38)


    All this talk, during the past few days, of “Don’t Be a Dick” has caused me to see ‘dicks’ everywhere — like in that lower image. It’s all your fault, Phil! 😛

    P.S. I’ve just noticed that you’ve hinted at that notion in your footnote.

  2. Chris
  3. XPT

    He said “don’t be dicks”, not “don’t SEE dicks”. Otherwise half my time spent online would be lost.
    Anyway, what was I saying? Ah. I’m in awe about that “fluid-like” mushroom-shaped cloud of gas.

  4. That was more than a hint.

  5. Listrade

    @ #5 Oh no, more flight cancellations.

    Besides the soiling of pantsscale/galactic p0rn nature of the picture, it’s another filed under “Pale Blue Dot”. One of those hmmmm, and we think we’ve got it bad on our tiny spec of dust. Perspective can be a b*tch.

  6. Luc

    Am I the only one to see a face in the orange and white part of the combined image? OMG a face!! A face!! Must be proof of something! 😉

  7. Sion

    There is a face, it looks like Richard Hoagland!

  8. thetentman

    I think it’s the virgin Mary’s face.

  9. The constant wind — and sometimes eruptive explosions — from the black hole prevents it, and so millions, maybe even billions of stars never get the chance to be born.

    How sad. Somewhere out there in the aether, millions of baby star souls are drifting about in limbo, all because a black whole couldn’t contain its disruptive impulses.

    Won’t someone think of the star children!

  10. Milena

    I like the ‘supermassivize’ option :)


    @ kuhnigget (#10),

    Conservapedia will probably blame President Obama for that, too!

  12. Ken (a different Ken)

    #9: The Virgin Mary looks like Richard Hoagland??

  13. thetentman

    on a good day she does.

  14. DrFlimmer

    Oh, people, come on! This is serious science and research, and all you do is making fun out of it! How shameful……..

    So, thanks for my death, since I cannot breath anymore due to too hard laughing. 😀

  15. Martha

    Wait a minute! Hoagland is a virgin?

    (does this make me a dick?)

  16. “I hear the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry, and time one livid final flame. What’s left us then?” — James Joyce, Ulysses

  17. Swarna Saraf

    can anybody tell me where all there galaxies are…i mean what contains all this stuff?

  18. Jim

    “Ow, my eye!” – James Joyce

    BTW, that looks like Vanilla Ice in that tan spot…

  19. Eric W.

    Perhaps this is a stupid question, but does this kind of massive explosion have a similar effect to that of a supernova or GRB? Do the x-rays travel forever unmolested from its origin?

  20. Ryan G

    “The X-rays are being emitted by gas blasting away from the black hole, heated up by the disk and the magnetic fields affiliated with the hole itself.”

    How does a magnetic field heat a gas?

  21. Mr. D

    The one thing I like best about this particular black hole is that (from memory) its event horizon is about as large (in angular diameter) as that of the Milky Way’s Sag A*.

    Better yet. Both are large enough to be resolved with highish frequency VLBI observations…

  22. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    What do you know, apparently big ass black holes do the funniest crap. The new picture is what you could call “lifting the lid on a shocking revelation”.

    These are called “cooling flows”, and a lot of work was done on them in the 1990s. But this image shows us the reality is more complicated.

    “I’ve got chills,
    They’re multiplying.
    And I’m losing self-control.
    ‘Cuz the power your supplying,
    Its electrifying.”

    @ #3 XPT:

    He said “don’t be dicks”, not “don’t SEE dicks”.

    But that is the whole point, the facts tells a skeptic the discussion originates with pattern seeking confirmation bias dickedolia.


    Ryan G (#21):

    How does a magnetic field heat a gas?

    A fluctuating or rapidly rotating magnetic field causes an electrically conducting medium — metal or, in this case, ionized gas — to become heated by electromagnetic induction, where eddy currents are generated within the medium and resistance leads to Joule heating of the medium. These electrical circuits (eddy currents) in the ionized gas (plasma) store inductive (magnetic) energy, and should the circuit be disrupted — e.g., by a plasma instability — the inductive energy will be released as plasma heating and acceleration; this is one of the theories that explains the reason for the solar corona having a temperture of about 2,000,000 K, whereas the solar photosphere, or surface, has a temperature of about 5,800 K.

    P.S. I remember when this used to be a family-friendly blog! 😉

  24. Messier Tidy Upper

    Great article – thanks to the BA & the VLA and Chandra Observatory people for this . :-)

    M87 is impressive in the same way as the cosmos is large – and I don’t think our merely human minds can fully comprehend the magnitude of either.

    @17. Mike from Tribeca : Great quote – thanks. :-)

  25. FATSO

    The title/headline “Black hole erupts in nearby galaxy” sounds like yet another shameless
    PR hack trying to get something onto the front page of a supermarket checkout tabloid. It didn’t just
    happen last night like an earthquake in China. Even for VLA to resolve the spatial signature
    of an energetic event, the linear scale of the effects are light years, and if much lower spatial resolution Chandra images are what motivated this “news” story, more like hundreds of light years.
    So even if “newly created” relativistic jets or ejecta are involved, its already been ongoing for
    many years or centuries, not counting previous episodes. The text actually does refer to the causative event occurring “some time in the past”, and the ejection or eruption originating in the accretion disk, not the black hole itself. This of course ignores the light travel time that makes all extragalactic events really past tense.

  26. Jarno

    Thanks Phil for the post. I actually saw the image floating by in astronomy news groups, but somehow I didn’t get it was an ACTUAL image of m87; I thought it was an artist rendering or something NASA likes to spew out to make their fray or radio images more appealing to the general public. Guess I have to say: that is an amazing shot!

  27. Chris Winter

    If the nucleus of this galaxy is active, shouldn’t there be two jets emanating from it in opposite directions, emitting intense x-rays? The picture doesn’t seem to show that.

  28. Damon

    Anyone else see the creepy face in the middle? Yes you do.

  29. Jack Clark

    Re: The Face

    Perhaps a cosmic voyeur given the phallic nature of some comments.

  30. DrFlimmer

    @ Chris Winter

    Since the jets are highly relativistic (meaning the velocity is almost the speed of light) you have to take some weird effects into account. For instance, the radiation emitted by the particles in the jet is severely beamed in the forward direction. So, if one jet is directed into our direction, and the other (of course) in the opposite one, you will mostly see only the one directed to you, because the radiation of the other one cannot reach you (at least the amount of photons is really low!).
    That’s the reason why we often see only one jet, when we should see (know) that there are two.

  31. three

    this is old news… 60 million years ago in the galaxy far far away…
    I think something like that happened in our galaxy around that time as well and wiped out the lizard civilazation here on Earth about 65 mil. years in the past.
    good old days….

  32. Steven Overby

    Hey Phil, it looks like the VLA image needs to be rotated 9oº clockwise to match the orientation of the other two. Good info though!

  33. Shalabh Saraf

    This Black hole thing is kind of weirdie…………
    Millions or Billions of Unborn stars……
    Hot flow & cool flow & all that ……
    Real Weirdie……….


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