UMKC Astronomer Discovers the Secret of Black Hole Thermostats

Team used ALMA telescope to unlock mysteries of giant galaxy at the center of Phoenix Cluster

A team of astronomers including Mark Brodwin, assistant professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, have discovered a surprising connection between a supermassive black hole and the galaxy in which it resides.

Researchers used the powerful new ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) telescope to study a galaxy at the heart of the Phoenix Cluster, an uncommonly crowded collection of galaxies about 5.7 billion light-years from Earth. Powerful radio jets from the black hole — which normally suppress star formation — are stimulating the production of cold gas in the galaxy’s extended halo of hot gas, according to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

“Astronomers have long understood that some process must be heating the gas, keeping it from cooling down and forming stars,” said Brodwin, who recently won a NASA Group Achievement Award from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “Previous observations have shown that powerful jets from the monster black holes heat the cluster gas, and push it out away from the central galaxy.  The mystery was how the black hole could keep this up without a fresh supply of cold gas to fuel it.  The new ALMA observations show that a side effect of the black hole heating is the stimulation of cold, molecular gas, thus completing the cycle.”

This newly identified supply of cold, dense gas could eventually fuel future star birth as well as feed the black hole itself. These findings are published in the Feb. 14 issue of The Astrophysical Journal.

Brodwin joined the UMKC College of Arts and Sciences faculty in the Department of Physics and Astronomy in 2011.

Last year at the American Astronomical Society annual meeting, Brodwin presented findings of a study he led uncovering the physical properties of the largest galaxy cluster in the early universe, called IDCS 1426 for short, using data from three of NASA’s Great Observatories.

Brodwin’s group discovered this immense cluster in 2012, pinpointing its distance at 10 billion light years and its mass at 400 trillion suns.

The European Space Agency selected Brodwin as one of its NASA-nominated science team members to participate in its Euclid mission. NASA is a partner in Euclid, a space telescope designed to probe the mysteries of our dark universe. Scientists think dark energy is responsible for stretching our universe apart at ever-increasing speeds.

Euclid is scheduled to launch in 2020 and spend six years mapping the locations and measuring the shapes of as many as 2 billion galaxies spread over more than one-third of the sky. The scientists will use Euclid to study the dark energy and dark matter that drive the evolution in the universe in ways that are still poorly understood.


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