NASA aims to unlock mysteries of celestial giants by observing rare black hole

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X-ray image of galaxy NGC 2276 (Image:NASA/CXC/SAO/M.Mezcua et al & NASA/CXC/INAF/A.Wolter)

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Ever since they were theorized by Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity back in 1915, black holes have captured the imagination and curiosity of the public and scientists alike. However, despite this popularity, relatively little is known about how these all-consuming giants evolve and shape the environment around them. NASA scientists are hoping to unravel some of these mysteries by observing an intermediate-mass black hole (IMBH) sitting 100 million light years away in the spiral arm of galaxy NGC 2276.

Whilst there is an abundance of solid evidence backing the existence of smaller black holes (with masses ranging from 5 - 30 times that of our Sun), and a good amount of data supporting the presence of the supermassive holes that reside at the center of galaxies (including our own Milky Way), there is relatively little known of the black holes that lay between these two extremes.

Capturing data on the imaginatively-named NGC2276-3c affords a rare opportunity for astronomers to observe a bridge between the two ends of the black hole evolutionary scale. "Astronomers have been looking very hard for these medium-sized black holes," states Tim Roberts of the University of Durham, UK, co-author of a paper on the findings. "There have been hints that they exist, but the IMBHs have been acting like a long-lost relative that isn’t interested in being found."

Astronomers believe that these mid-way black holes may represent the seeds of the supermassive holes at the center of galaxies, making some scientists question how NGC2276-3c got to be in the arm of a spiral galaxy. One explanation has been offered for the unusual position of the celestial object.

It has been suggested that NGC2276-3c originally sat at the center of a dwarf galaxy, that at some point in the distant past collided with NGC 2276. This turbulent process resulted in the displacement of IMBH to its current position, but still allows for it to be the seed of a supermassive black hole. The theory is backed by observations of heightened levels of star formation that could be attributed to a collision between two galaxies, and the sudden increase of materials that follow.

NGC2276-3c was imaged via radio waves with the European Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) Network while simultaneously observing the black hole's x-ray characteristics with NASA's Chandra observatory. It was found that NGC2276-3c was emitting a massive radio jet believed to stretch up to 2,000 light years. Along the path of the jet, there is a noticeable absence of young stars where the waves had cleared the affected area of the gas vital to the formation of new stars.

This is only one way in which these celestial leviathans have been found to alter the nature of their surrounding environment, and it is hoped that further observation of the IMBH and its unusual characteristics could shed further light on how these giants shape their surroundings as they evolve into supermassive black holes

Source: NASA

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