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Watch: New simulation shows spiral galaxies feeding their ravenous black holes

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At the center of most large galaxies is a supermassive black hole. Yep, even the Milky Way has one — although it’s currently dormant.

X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; optical: Rolf Olsen; infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech; radio: NRAO/AUI/NSF/Univ.Hertfordshire/M.Hardcastle

However, we’ve spotted active, hungry black holes in distant galaxies, like Centaurus A, which is 12 million light years away.

Scientists are still trying to understand the forces at work that help galaxies power up black holes.

A new simulation, published August 17 in The Astrophysical Journal, gives insight into how galaxies feed energy into their hungry centers.

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Here’s what that process looks like:

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Past models of black holes show how rapidly the objects grow, and how some become quasarsrapidly-growing supermassive black holes that shoot out jets of light and energy.

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But the research team wanted to probe at the forces around black holes that influence their presence. To that end, they created complex simulations to recreate these voracious objects.

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In the simulation, they accounted for the effects that stellar winds, radiation, feedback from supernovae, the rate of universe expansion, and other cosmic forces would have on black hole energy consumption.

“Other models can tell you a lot of details about what’s happening very close to the black hole, but they don’t contain information about what the rest of the galaxy is doing or even less about what the environment around the galaxy is doing.”

Daniel Anglés-Alcázar, lead study author and professor of physics at University of Connecticut

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In a nutshell: galaxy arms and other structures stop gas from moving that would otherwise orbit the center of the galaxy forever.

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Putting on the brakes, as study author Claude-André Faucher-Giguère puts it, helps that energy fall into the center of the black hole.

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The simulation gives astronomers new hints into the life cycles of supermassive black holes and quasars, but many big questions remain unanswered.

“The very existence of supermassive black holes is quite amazing, yet there is no consensus on how they formed.”

Claude-André Faucher-Giguère, senior study author and professor of physics and astronomy at Northwestern University

Anglés-Alcázar et al. 2021, ApJ, 917, 53

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