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Hubble spies black hole blowing bubbles

Click on each image for larger views of the bubble-blowing black hole, located in the lower left corner of the top image. The second image shows a close-up of the black hole's effects  

June 5, 2000
Web posted at: 12:42 p.m. EDT (1642 GMT)

In this story:

Interactive: anatomy of a black hole

A 'disturbed mess' of a galaxy


(CNN) -- Shooting streams of matter in opposite directions, a supermassive black hole is creating giant bubbles of hot gas in space, astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope said Monday.

The NASA observatory snapped images of one bright bubble ascending from below a dark band of dust. A second bubble extends below the band, but the dust obscures most of it.

Located in the Virgo Cluster, the black hole resides in the central region of a nearby galaxy some 50 million light years from Earth.

A 'disturbed mess' of a galaxy

"A lot of galaxies don't have that much gas lying around, but this one did so it made a pretty bubble," said Jeffrey Kenney, a Yale University professor who detected the black hole in the Hubble images.

The bubble came as a surprise to Kenney, who had trained the Hubble telescope on the galaxy, NGC 4438, because of its unusual shape, caused by a run-in with another group of stars.

"The galaxy is very disturbed, a mess. I didn't know the nucleus was so interesting, so that was a surprise," he said.

The black hole feeds off material from its accretion disk, the white region underneath the bright bubble. Some of the matter streams out in opposite directions in fast-moving twin jets.

They eventually collide with dense regions of slow-moving gas, producing the glow. The bubbles will expand but eventually disintegrate, according to Hubble scientists.

"The bubble in much brighter on one side of the galaxy's center because the jets smashed into a denser amount of gas," the astronomers said in a statement. The brighter bubble is 800 light years in height and 800 light years in width.

The two color-enhanced pictures were taken in March 1999. Kenney and a colleague presented the images at an American Astronomical Society meeting on Monday.

The Hubble telescope is the premier black hole hunter because of its ability to measure gas and stars around black holes, astronomers said. The orbiter has spotted more than 10 monstrous black holes in galaxy centers, bringing the total of black holes available for study to more than 30.

Preliminary Hubble observations suggest that black holes co-evolve with their host galaxies, growing to predictable mass based on the available diet of nearby gas and stars in galactic centers, said John Kormendy, an astronomer at the University of Texas at Austin.

In the past, some astronomers thought that such black holes formed before galaxies, he said. Kormendy and a colleague reported their findings at the ASA conference in Rochester, New York.

The results could explain why galaxies like the Milky Way, with comparatively scarce fuel supplies in their centers, have small central black holes, a few million solar masses, while giant elliptical galaxies with dense cores house billion-solar-mass black holes.

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April 7, 2000

Hubble Heritage Project
NASA K-12 Internet: Live from the Hubble Space Telescope

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