Quasars & Active Galaxies

Did We Finally Detect the First Heavily Obscured Quasar in the Kindergarten of the Universe?

Fabio Vito
Fabio Vito

We are very pleased to welcome Fabio Vito as our guest blogger. Vito is the first author of a paper that is the subject of our latest press release, on the discovery of a distant, cloaked black hole. He obtained his PhD in 2014 at the University of Bologna, Italy, before moving to Penn State as a postdoctoral researcher. He is now a postdoctoral fellow at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. He mainly works on the properties and evolution of high-redshift AGN, with the final goal of understanding how they formed and grew in the first billion years of the Universe.

Imagine you are a teacher in a kindergarten starting the school year. You enter the classroom, but instead of finding little children, you see fully grown people — men and women — staring at you. Puzzled, you check with the principal, and they confirm that those people are supposed to be the new kindergarteners, just a handful of years old. Two things come to your mind immediately: 1) this is definitely going to be a very long school year, 2) what happened? Why are adults sitting in your kindergarten classroom?

Astrophysicists find themselves in a similar situation today. According to our theoretical knowledge, supermassive black holes (SMBHs) should grow from "seeds" with masses not larger than hundreds of thousands of solar masses. We then use the most powerful telescopes to find the most distant — both in space and in time — growing SMBHs, shining as “quasars,” about 13 billion years ago, when the Universe was just a few hundred million years old. We look for them because astronomers want to study how they grew to become the monsters that populate the older Universe, with masses of billions of solar masses. However, the SMBHs powering the quasars that we find in the kindergarten of the Universe are already fully grown! They are indeed already as massive as the most massive SMBHs in the local Universe.

Storm Rages in Cosmic Teacup

The Teacup
The Teacup, SDSS J1430+1339
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ. of Cambridge/G. Lansbury et al; Optical: NASA/STScI/W. Keel et al.

Fancy a cup of cosmic tea? This one isn't as calming as the ones on Earth. In a galaxy hosting a structure nicknamed the "Teacup," a galactic storm is raging.

The source of the cosmic squall is a supermassive black hole buried at the center of the galaxy, officially known as SDSS 1430+1339. As matter in the central regions of the galaxy is pulled toward the black hole, it is energized by the strong gravity and magnetic fields near the black hole. The infalling material produces more radiation than all the stars in the host galaxy. This kind of actively growing black hole is known as a quasar.

Hide and Seek: Tracking Down the Invisible Filaments

Orsolya Kovács
Orsolya Kovács

We welcome Orsolya Kovács, a third-year PhD student at the Eötvös Loránd University, Hungary where she obtained her MSc degree in astronomy, as our guest blogger. Currently, she is a pre-doctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, and is the first author on a recent paper on the WHIM featured in our latest press release.

I was working on a totally different subject before I started the missing baryon project with a small group of scientists at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) about two years ago. Before I came to the United States as a Ph.D. student, I was involved in analyzing optical data of variable stars observed at the beautiful Piszkéstető Station in the Mátra Mountains, Hungary. In my master’s thesis, I focused on the variable stars of an extremely old open cluster in the Milky Way, and at that time, I also got the chance to gain some observing skills from my Hungarian supervisor.

So the very beginning of my astronomy career was all about optical astronomy. But before getting really into optical astronomy and mountain life, I decided to interrupt this idyllic period, and find some new challenges: I wanted to spend part of my Ph.D. years learning X-ray astrophysics. With this in my mind, I applied to the SAO’s pre-doctoral program, and a few months later I arrived in Massachusetts.

Shortly after introducing me to the basics of X-ray astronomy, Ákos Bogdán at SAO proposed a crazy idea about how to observe the ‘invisible’, i.e. the missing part of the ordinary (baryonic) matter that could possibly solve the long-standing missing baryon problem. The missing baryon problem is related to the mismatch between the observed and theoretically predicted amount of matter.

Where is the Universe Hiding its Missing Mass?

Plot and Simulation
WHIM Simulation
Credit: Illustration: Springel et al. (2005); Spectrum: NASA/CXC/CfA/Kovács et al.

New results from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory may have helped solve the Universe's "missing mass" problem, as reported in our latest press release. Astronomers cannot account for about a third of the normal matter — that is, hydrogen, helium, and other elements — that were created in the first billion years or so after the Big Bang.

Scientists have proposed that the missing mass could be hidden in gigantic strands or filaments of warm (temperature less than 100,000 Kelvin) and hot (temperature greater than 100,000 K) gas in intergalactic space. These filaments are known by astronomers as the "warm-hot intergalactic medium" or WHIM. They are invisible to optical light telescopes, but some of the warm gas in filaments has been detected in ultraviolet light. The main part of this graphic is from the Millenium simulation, which uses supercomputers to formulate how the key components of the Universe, including the WHIM, would have evolved over cosmic time.

Cygnus A: Ricocheting Black Hole Jet Discovered by Chandra

Image of Cygnus A
Cygnus A
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Columbia Univ./A. Johnson et al.; Optical: NASA/STScI

A ricocheting jet blasting from a giant black hole has been captured by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, as reported in our latest press release. In this composite image of Cygnus A, X-rays from Chandra (red, green, and blue that represent low, medium and high energy X-rays) are combined with an optical view from the Hubble Space Telescope of the galaxies and stars in the same field of view. Chandra's data reveal the presence of powerful jets of particles and electromagnetic energy that have shot out from the black hole. The jet on the left has slammed into a wall of hot gas, then ricocheted to punch a hole in a cloud of energetic particles, before it collides with another part of the gas wall.

Playing it Safe: Chandra's Return to Science Observations

PS 01247+4630
Credit: NASA/CXC/Trinity University/D. Pooley et al.

On October 10th, NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory went into “safe mode,” following a glitch on one of the telescope’s gyroscopes. After hard work by the team at the Chandra X-ray Center, the problem was identified and solved, allowed Chandra to resume science observations less than two weeks later on October 21st.

One of the first targets that Chandra looked at after its return to science was PS 0147+4630, a gravitationally-lensed quasar. What is that exactly? A quasar is a supermassive black hole that is rapidly consuming gas from its surroundings. The gas falls into a disk around the black hole where it becomes hot and generates prodigious amounts of radiation. Gravitational lensing is a phenomenon, first predicted by Einstein, where light from a very distant source is bent by a massive intervening object, such as a large galaxy or a galaxy cluster. This creates multiple images of a single, faraway object and amplifies the brightness of the light, acting in some ways as a natural magnifying glass.

Finding the Happy Medium of Black Holes

COSMOS Survey
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/ICE/M.Mezcua et al.;
Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech; Illustration: NASA/CXC/A.Hobart

This image shows data from a massive observing campaign that includes NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory. These Chandra data have provided strong evidence for the existence of so-called intermediate-mass black holes (IMBHs). Combined with a separate study also using Chandra data, these results may allow astronomers to better understand how the very largest black holes in the early Universe formed, as described in our latest press release.

The COSMOS ("cosmic evolution survey") Legacy Survey has assembled data from some of the world's most powerful telescopes spanning the electromagnetic spectrum. This image contains Chandra data from this survey, equivalent to about 4.6 million seconds of observing time. The colors in this image represent different levels of X-ray energy detected by Chandra. Here the lowest-energy X-rays are red, the medium band is green, and the highest-energy X-rays observed by Chandra are blue. Most of the colored dots in this image are black holes. Data from the Spitzer Space Telescope are shown in grey. The inset shows an artist's impression of a growing black hole in the center of a galaxy. A disk of material surrounding the black hole and a jet of outflowing material are also depicted.

Researchers Catch Supermassive Black Hole Burping — Twice

SDSS J1354+1327
SDSS J1354+1327

Using data from several telescopes including NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, astronomers have caught a supermassive black hole snacking on gas and then "burping" — not once but twice, as described in our latest press release.

This graphic shows the galaxy, called SDSS J1354+1327 (J1354 for short) in a composite image with data from Chandra (purple), and the Hubble Space Telescope (HST; red, green and blue). The inset box contains a close-up view of the central region around J1354's supermassive black hole. A companion galaxy to J1354 is shown to the north. Researchers also used data from the W.M. Keck Observatory atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii and the Apache Point Observatory (APO) in New Mexico for this finding.

Chandra detected a bright, point-like source of X-ray emission from J1354, a telltale sign of the presence of a supermassive black hole millions or billions of times more massive than our sun. The X-rays are produced by gas heated to millions of degrees by the enormous gravitational and magnetic forces near the black hole. Some of this gas will fall into the black hole, while a portion will be expelled in a powerful outflow of high-energy particles.

Giant Black Hole Pair Photobombs Andromeda Galaxy

Correction: A follow-up paper by Barth & Stern (2018) has shown that the evidence for periodic light variations presented in Dorn-Wallenstein et al. (2017) and publicized in this press release is not, in fact, significant. Although a supermassive black hole behind M31 has been discovered, the claim that a pair of supermassive black holes was detected can no longer be made.

Editor's Note: Honest errors such as this are part of the scientific process, especially on the frontiers of discovery. To quote Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek, "If you don't make mistakes, you're not working on hard enough problems. And that's a big mistake."

References:

A. J. Barth & D. Stern, 2018, ApJ, 858, 10
https://arxiv.org/abs/1803.00691

T. Dorn-Wallenstein, E. M. Levesque & J. J. Ruan, 2017, ApJ, 850, 86
https://arxiv.org/abs/1704.08694


Professor Emily Levesque & Trevor Dorn-Wallenstein
Professor Emily Levesque & Trevor Dorn-Wallenstein

Trevor is a third-year Astronomy graduate student at the University of Washington in Seattle, working with Professor Emily Levesque. He led the paper that is the subject of our latest press release on the discovery of a giant black hole pair that is photobombing the Andromeda Galaxy. He is interested in massive stars and young stellar populations, as well as playing the drums and baking cookies.

It’s funny how a simple case of mistaken identity can lead to the discovery of exotic objects hiding as unassuming dots in the sky.

My advisor, Professor Emily Levesque, and I, both astronomers at the University of Washington, were interested in finding star systems called red supergiant X-ray binaries. These systems consist of a compact object, like a neutron star or black hole, and a red supergiant — massive stars like Betelgeuse that are 10-20 times the mass of our sun but much less hot. Mass from the supergiant is lost to the compact object, where it should heat up and glow brightly in X-rays. While no such systems have been conclusively identified, red supergiant X-ray binaries could be used to better understand the evolution of the most extreme star systems.

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