Normal Galaxies & Starburst Galaxies

X-Rays Help Prove Some Galaxies are True Relics of the Ancient Universe

Professor David Buote
Professor David Buote

We welcome Professor David Buote as our guest blogger. Buote was one of the first Chandra Postdoctoral Fellows and is now a Professor at the University of California at Irvine. He has studied X-rays from massive elliptical galaxies and galaxy clusters since the time he was a graduate student. His new work with Aaron Barth on the dark matter in a relic elliptical galaxy is the subject of our latest press release.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Chandra X-ray Observatory and a chance to celebrate its many and diverse accomplishments. A critical aspect of Chandra's impact on astrophysics is its synergies with observations of phenomena throughout the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum and through other channels like gravity waves and neutrinos. Our study highlights how studies of the X-ray emission of a rare type of galaxy complement and augment what has been learned from observations of the stellar light at longer wavelengths.

Galaxies are broadly divided into two types — disks and spheroids — with substantial overlap in their properties. The spheroids — or elliptical galaxies — are approximately round but range in shape as observed on the sky from nearly circular to elongated somewhat like an American football viewed from the side. Most of what we know about the stars in galaxies comes from observations of visible light photons with lots of help from observations in the nearby ultraviolet and infrared (IR) parts of the EM spectrum.

Heart of Lonesome Galaxy is Brimming with Dark Matter

Image of Mrk 1216
Markarian 1216
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ. of CA Irvine/D. Buote; Optical: NASA/STScI

Data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory (left) have helped astronomers reveal that a galaxy has more dark matter packed into its core than expected after being isolated for billions of years, as reported in our press release. The image on the right shows the galaxy called Markarian 1216 (abbreviated as Mrk 1216) in visible light from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope over the same field of view.

Mrk 1216 belongs to a family of elliptically shaped galaxies that are more densely packed with stars in their centers than most other galaxies. Astronomers think they have descended from red, compact galaxies called "red nuggets" that formed about a billion years after the Big Bang, but then stalled in their growth about 10 billion years ago.

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.

The Whirlpool Galaxy Like You’ve Never Seen It Before

NASA's Universe of Learning, or UoL, provides resources and experiences that enable youth, families, and lifelong learners to explore fundamental questions in science, experience how science is done, and discover the Universe for themselves.

To make this goal a reality, this consortium of professional scientists, educators, visualizers, and more work together to create resources for anyone interested in learning about our Universe. The latest product from the UoL is a new visualization of Messier 51, also known as the Whirlpool galaxy. Located about 30 million light years from Earth, the Whirlpool galaxy is a spiral like our own Milky Way.

Whirlpool Galaxy

The Whirlpool Galaxy, M51
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Wesleyan Univ./R.Kilgard, et al; Optical: NASA/STScI

Chandra Serves up Cosmic Holiday Assortment

This is the season of celebrating, and the Chandra X-ray Center has prepared a platter of cosmic treats from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory to enjoy. This selection represents different types of objects — ranging from relatively nearby exploded stars to extremely distant and massive clusters of galaxies — that emit X-rays detected by Chandra. Each image in this collection blends Chandra data with other telescopes, creating a colorful medley of light from our Universe.

ULX in M51: Beaming with the Light of Millions of Suns

In the 1980s, scientists started discovering a new class of extremely bright sources of X-rays in galaxies. These sources were a surprise, as they were clearly located away from the supermassive black holes found in the center of galaxies. At first, researchers thought that many of these ultraluminous X-ray sources, or ULXs, were black holes containing masses between about a hundred and a hundred thousand times that of the sun. Later work has shown some of them may be stellar-mass black holes, containing up to a few tens of times the mass of the sun.

In 2014, observations with NASA's NuSTAR (Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array) and Chandra X-ray Observatory showed that a few ULXs, which glow with X-ray light equal in luminosity to the total output at all wavelengths of millions of suns, are even less massive objects called neutron stars. These are the burnt-out cores of massive stars that exploded. Neutron stars typically contain only about 1.5 times the mass of the sun. Three such ULXs were identified as neutron stars in the last few years. Scientists discovered regular variations, or "pulsations," in the X-ray emission from ULXs, behavior that is exhibited by neutron stars but not black holes.

Now, researchers using data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory have identified a fourth ULX as being a neutron star, and found new clues about how these objects can shine so brightly. The newly characterized ULX is located in the Whirlpool galaxy, also known as M51. This composite image of the Whirlpool contains X-rays from Chandra (purple) and optical data from the Hubble Space Telescope (red, green, and blue). The ULX is marked with a circle.

The Billion-year Race Between Black Holes and Galaxies: Mar Mezcua

Mar Mezcua
Mar Mezcua

Mar Mezcua is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Space Sciences, in Barcelona (Spain), where she is from. She is a guest blogger today and the leading author of one of the two papers highlighted in our latest press release. aShe conducted this work last year with Prof. Julie Hlavacek Larrondo while at the University of Montreal (Canada).

Supermassive black holes (SMBHs) started to fascinate me when I was 13 years old. These monsters reside at the center of massive galaxies and are the most energetic sources in the Universe. When they are actively accreting, the surrounding matter that feeds them (or that the black hole accretes) can radiate over a trillion times as much energy as the Sun, being able even to outshine the galaxy in which they reside. This feeding, or accreted, material emits X-ray radiation that we can detect with X-ray satellites such as Chandra, while the material that is ejected from the SMBH in the form of jets also often emit at radio wavelengths. (Yes, SMBHs do not only swallow but also emit outflows of energetic particles!) It is for all the above that I pursued a career in astrophysics in order to study these powerful behemoths in detail.

My first close approach took place during my PhD, when I estimated the black holes (BH) masses of a sample of SMBHs whose radio jets had a peculiar morphology. To do this, I used the close relationships that had been recently found between the mass of SMBHs and some of their host galaxy properties, such as how much light was emitted by the central bulge or how quickly and where the stars in the bulge moved.

The finding of such correlations suggested that SMBHs and their host galaxies grow in tandem — that there is a co-evolution — implying that SMBHs somehow regulate the growth of the galaxy in which they reside. As simple as it might sound, this was an astonishing discovery of the late 90’s. SMBHs typically have masses of between one million and one billion times that of the Sun and sizes similar to that of the Solar System, this is, nearly 10,000 times smaller than the galaxy that hosts them. That’s a huge difference in size! How is it then possible that such a ‘small’ central SMBH controls the whole budget of a galaxy? SMBHs were getting more and more exciting every time, so after my PhD I kept on studying them using all tools I had available: radio, optical, infrared and X-ray observations!

The Billion-year Race Between Black Holes and Galaxies: Guang Yang

Guang Yang
Guang Yang

We welcome Guang Yang, a 4th-year Astronomy graduate student at Penn State, as a guest blogger. Guang led one of the two studies reported in our new press release about the evolution of supermassive black holes and galaxies. Before studying at Penn State, he obtained his astronomy B.S. degree at the University of Science and Technology of China.

Supermassive black holes, with masses over million times that of our sun, sit in the centers of galaxies. The evolution of these black holes and their host galaxies in the past billions of years of cosmic history is still an unsolved mystery. A prevailing idea is that black hole growth is synchronized with host-galaxy growth, i.e., the ratio between black hole and galaxy growth is constant. "What a beautiful theory," I told my advisor Prof. Niel Brandt, and colleagues Dr. Chien-Ting Chen and Dr. Fabio Vito. "But is it true?” I asked. “Has someone proved it?"

We searched large amounts of literature but did not find dedicated works proving the idea, although it is widely quoted in published papers. "Then why not prove it with observations?" said my advisor. "It can be a great thesis topic for you." I was so happy that my thesis topic was settled and I even dreamed about how our data might nicely support the theory.

We painstakingly analyzed a large amount of data in the Chandra Deep Field-South & North and COSMOS surveys. We successfully tracked the black hole and galaxy growth in the distant universe with NASA's Chandra, Hubble, Spitzer, and other observatories. The observations are so deep that we can study the evolution of black holes and their host galaxies 12 billion years in the past, when the Universe was less than 15% of its current age.

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