Chandra finds black holes are 'green'

April 24, 2006
Chandra finds black holes are 'green'
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/KIPAC/S.Allen et al; Radio: NRAO/VLA/G.Taylor; Infrared: NASA/ESA/McMaster Univ./W.Harris

Black holes are the most fuel efficient engines in the Universe, according to a new study using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory. By making the first direct estimate of how efficient or "green" black holes are, this work gives insight into how black holes generate energy and affect their environment.

The new Chandra finding shows that most of the energy released by matter falling toward a supermassive black hole is in the form of high-energy jets traveling at near the speed of light away from the black hole. This is an important step in understanding how such jets can be launched from magnetized disks of gas near the event horizon of a black hole.

"Just as with cars, it's critical to know the fuel efficiency of black holes," said lead author Steve Allen of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at Stanford University, and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. "Without this information, we cannot figure out what is going on under the hood, so to speak, or what the engine can do."

Allen and his team used Chandra to study nine supermassive black holes at the centers of elliptical galaxies. These black holes are relatively old and generate much less radiation than quasars, rapidly growing supermassive black holes seen in the early Universe. The surprise came when the Chandra results showed that these "quiet" black holes are all producing much more energy in jets of high-energy particles than in visible light or X-rays. These jets create huge bubbles, or cavities, in the hot gas in the galaxies.

The efficiency of the black hole energy-production was calculated in two steps: first Chandra images of the inner regions of the galaxies were used to estimate how much fuel is available for the black hole; then Chandra images were used to estimate the power required to produce the cavities.

"If a car was as fuel-efficient as these black holes, it could theoretically travel over a billion miles on a gallon of gas," said coauthor Christopher Reynolds of the University of Maryland, College Park.

New details are given about how black hole engines achieve this extreme efficiency. Some of the gas first attracted to the black holes may be blown away by the energetic activity before it gets too near the black hole, but a significant fraction must eventually approach the event horizon where it is used with high efficiency to power the jets. The study also implies that matter flows towards the black holes at a steady rate for several million years.

"These black holes are very efficient, but it also takes a very long time to refuel them," said Steve Allen who receives funding from the Office of Science of the Department of Energy.

This new study shows that black holes are green in another important way. The energy transferred to the hot gas by the jets should keep hot gas from cooling, thereby preventing billions of new stars from forming. This will place limits on the growth of the largest galaxies, and prevent galactic sprawl from taking over the neighborhood.

Source: Chandra X-ray Center

Explore further: A fresh perspective on an extraordinary cluster of galaxies

Related Stories

Milky Way's black hole shows signs of increased chatter

September 23, 2015

Three orbiting X-ray space telescopes have detected an increased rate of X-ray flares from the usually quiet giant black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy after new long-term monitoring. Scientists are trying to ...

Oxymoronic black hole RGG 118 provides clues to growth

August 12, 2015

Astronomers using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the 6.5-meter Clay Telescope in Chile have identified the smallest supermassive black hole ever detected in the center of a galaxy, as described in our latest press release. ...

Recommended for you

The hand and foot of Homo naledi

October 6, 2015

The second set of papers related to the remarkable discovery of Homo naledi, a new species of human relative, have been published in scientific journal, Nature Communications, on Tuesday, 6 October 2015.

New surfaces delay ice formation

October 6, 2015

If you've ever waited on an airport runway for your plane to be de-iced, had to remove all your food so the freezer could defrost, or arrived late to work because you had to scrape the sheet of ice off your car windshield, ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet May 29, 2009
A confusing article. I get the impression though, in the end, that what they are saying is that most of the matter that falls towards the black hole is blasted back out again in high energy particles.

At least that is what I think they are saying, in which case I would have labeled the black hole as very inefficient, as it hardly absorbs any of the matter it attracts.

I guess, like most things, it depends on your point of view and motivation. Is a black hole more efficient if it grows faster or slower?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.