ESO spots black hole behaving badly

Astronomers are puzzled when cosmic giant is observed expelling dust

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By Chris McSweeney

Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

The black hole at the centre of active galaxy NGC 3783 is behaving very strangely.


Astronomers at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) have made a startling discovery around the supermassive black hole at the centre of active galaxy NGC 3783. Incredibly, some of the cosmic dust that surrounds the black hole is being pushed away from it by a cool wind - typically anything unlucky enough to stray close to these celestial leviathans is instantly consumed.

ESO’s observations initially appeared to show dust particles with temperatures ranging from 700-1000°C around the outside of the black hole, a result they expected. But on closer inspection astronomers were astonished to find huge amounts of dust ejected from above and below the black hole’s centre point, an area where its gravitational pull is at its strongest. The researchers were further surprised to discover that the dust’s temperature was just 20°C – around room temperature.

Sebastian Hönig of the University of California was lead author on a paper detailing the findings, and explained how new methods revealed the black hole's secret, “This is the first time we’ve been able to combine detailed mid-infrared observations of the cool, room temperature dust around an active galactic nuclei with similarly detailed observations of very hot dust.” These highly detailed and varied observations were made using the ESO’s Very Large Telescope Interferometer.

Scientists believe that these new observations may lead to a revolutionary change in our understanding of  black holes and could be used to better predict their growth and behavior.


 

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