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Newly discovered black hole may be affecting galactic climate

When a black hole has a direct impact on its host galaxy, it's called "feedback."

By Brooks Hays
Newly discovered black hole may be affecting galactic climate
Researchers say X-ray blasts from a nearby black hole are responsible for the arcs seen within spiral galaxy NGC 5195. Photo by Eric Schlegel/University of Texas at San Antonio

SAN ANTONIO, Jan. 6 (UPI) -- Astronomers at the University of Texas at San Antonio have discovered a black hole they say is powerful enough to have a sizable influence on galactic climate.

The black hole is periodically emitting powerful blasts of energy. Located 26 million light-years from Earth, it's the nearest supermassive black hole known to produce such eruptions.

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The black hole was located using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory. It lies within a system of galaxies called Messier 51. The system features the ongoing collision and merger of two galaxies -- the larger spiral galaxy NGC 5194 and a diminutive companion galaxy, NGC 5195.

Researchers believe the nature of the galactic collision and combination is being shaped by the violent outbursts of the nearby supermassive black hole.

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"Just as powerful storms here on Earth impact their environments, so too do the ones we see out in space," lead researcher Eric Schlegel, a physics professor at UTSA, said in a press release. "This black hole is blasting hot gas and particles into its surroundings that must play an important role in the evolution of the galaxy."

The observations collected by Schlegel and his colleagues revealed the presence of sweeping X-ray emission arcs near the black hole -- evidence of large waves of expelled material pushed out across the center of the black hole's host galaxy.

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Just beyond the arcs are slender areas of concentrated of hydrogen gas, suggesting these blasts are sweeping up significant amounts of galactic material -- enough galactic material to encourage new star-forming regions.

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When a black-hole has a direct impact on its host galaxy, it's called "feedback."

"We think that feedback keeps galaxies from becoming too large," explained co-author Marie Machacek, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. "But at the same time, it can be responsible for how some stars form, showing that black holes can be creative, not just destructive."

Researchers also hypothesize the galactic collision may itself be feeding the black hole, providing a glut of fresh material that fuels the violent outbursts.

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If the phenomenon is an example of behavior common to young galaxies, it may help astronomers better understand early galactic evolution.

"The black hole's behavior may be a local example of events that commonly took place when the universe was much younger," Schlegel added. "That makes this observation potentially very important."

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