Magazine article Science News

A Black Hole's Dusty Environs Show Themselves

Magazine article Science News

A Black Hole's Dusty Environs Show Themselves

Article excerpt

The first clear picture of the immediate surroundings of a supermassive black hole is confirming that these gravitational monsters hide behind thick belts of dust. The observed shroud suggests that such black holes, which weigh millions to billions of times as much as the sun, maybe far more numerous than astronomers have estimated and collectively generate as much power as all the stars in the universe.

According to a widely accepted model, the cores of all galaxies that house an active supermassive black hole have several features in common, including intense X-ray and radio emissions. The galaxy cores don't all look the same, according to the theory, because supermassive black holes are surrounded by doughnut-shaped veils that have many orientations with respect to Earth.

If a dusty doughnut is aligned so that observers must peer through its side toward the black hole, then that central powerhouse appears muted. In a rarer alignment, an observer looks straight through the hole in the doughnut, enabling detectors to record the full array of fireworks generated by material spiraling into the black hole.

Although astronomers have had several indirect lines of evidence supporting the model, telescopes haven't had the resolution to detect any of the proposed dust veils. A new interferometer combining infrared light collected by two of the Very Large Telescope's four 8-meter telescopes in Paranal, Chile, has finally provided a view that's sharp enough. …

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