Galaxy Reveals Black Holes' True Power

Journal of College Science Teaching, January-February 2011 | Go to article overview

Galaxy Reveals Black Holes' True Power


Following a study of what is in effect a miniature galaxy buried inside a normal-size one--like a Russian doll--astronomers using a Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) telescope have concluded that massive black holes are more powerful than we thought.

An international team of astronomers led by Dr. Manfred Pakull at the University of Strasbourg in France has discovered a microquasar--a small black hole, weighing only as much as a star, that shoots jets of radio-emitting particles into space. Called S26, the black hole sits inside a regular galaxy called NGC 7793, which is 13 million light-years away in the constellation of Sculptor. Earlier this year, Pakull and colleagues observed S26 with optical and X-ray telescopes (the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope and NASA's Chandra space telescope).

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Now they have made new observations with CSIRO's Compact Array radio telescope near Narrabri, New South Wales, Australia. These show that S26 is a near-perfect analogue of the much larger "radio galaxies" and "radio quasars."

Powerful radio galaxies and quasars are almost extinct today, but they dominated the early universe billions of years ago, like cosmic dinosaurs. They contain big black holes, billions of times more massive than the Sun, and shoot out huge radio jets that can stretch millions of light-years into space.

Astronomers have been working for decades to understand how these black holes form their giant jets and how much of the black hole's energy those jets transmit to the gas they travel through. …

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