Simulations Show How Growing Black Holes Regulate Galaxy Formation

Feb 11, 2005
Black Holes Regulate Galaxy Formation

Using a new computer model of galaxy formation, researchers have shown that growing black holes release a blast of energy that fundamentally regulates galaxy evolution and black hole growth itself. The model explains for the first time observed phenomena and promises to deliver deeper insights into our understanding of galaxy formation and the role of black holes throughout cosmic history, according to its creators. Published in the Feb. 10 issue of Nature, the results were generated by Carnegie Mellon University astrophysicist Tiziana Di Matteo and her colleagues while at the Max Planck Institut fur Astrophysik in Germany. Di Matteo’s collaborators include Volker Springel at Max-Planck Institut for Astrophysics and Lars Hernquist at Harvard University.

"In recent years, scientists have begun to appreciate that the total mass of stars in today’s galaxies corresponds directly to the size of a galaxy’s black hole, but until now, no one could account for this observed relationship," said Di Matteo, assistant professor of physics at Carnegie Mellon. "Using our simulations has given us a completely new way to explore this problem."

The key to the researchers’ breakthrough was incorporating calculations for black hole dynamics into a computational model of galaxy formation.

As galaxies formed in the early universe, they likely contained small black holes at their centers. In the standard scenario of galaxy formation, galaxies grow by coming together with one another by the pull of gravity. In the process, the black holes at their center merge together and quickly grow to reach their observed masses of a billion times that of the Sun; hence, they are called supermassive black holes. Also at the time of merger, the majority of stars form from available gas. Today’s galaxies and their central black holes must be the result of a series of such events.
Di Matteo and her colleagues simulated the collision of two nascent galaxies and found that when the two galaxies came together, their two supermassive black holes merged and initially consumed the surrounding gas. But this activity was self-limiting. As the remnant galaxy’s supermassive black hole sucked up gas, it powered a luminescent state called a quasar. The quasar energized the surrounding gas to such a level that it was blown away from the vicinity of the supermassive black hole to the outside of the galaxy. Without nearby gas, the galaxy’s supermassive black hole could not "eat" to sustain itself and became dormant. At the same time, gas was no longer available to form any more stars.

"We’ve discovered that the energy released by black holes during a quasar phase powers a strong wind that prevents material from falling into the black hole," Springel said. "This process inhibits further black hole growth and shuts off the quasar, just as star formation stops inside a galaxy. As a result, the black hole mass and the mass of stars in a galaxy are closely linked. Our results also explain for the first time why the quasar lifetime is such a short phase compared to the life of a galaxy."

In their simulations, Di Matteo, Springel and Hernquist found that the black holes in small galaxies self-limit their growth more effectively than in those in larger galaxies. A smaller galaxy contains smaller amounts of gas so that a small amount of energy from the black hole can quickly blow this gas away. In a large galaxy, the black hole can reach a greater size before its surrounding gas is energized enough to stop falling in. With their gas quickly spent, smaller galaxies make fewer stars. With a longer-lived pool of gas, larger galaxies make more stars. These findings match the observed relation between black hole size and the total mass of stars in galaxies.

"Our simulations demonstrate that self-regulation can quantitatively account for observed facts associated with black holes and galaxies," said Hernquist, professor and chair of astronomy in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. "It provides an explanation for the origin of the quasar lifetime and should allow us to understand why quasars were more plentiful in the early universe than they are today."

"With these computations, we now see that black holes must have an enormous impact on the way galaxies form and evolve," Di Matteo said. "The successes obtained so far will allow us to implement these models within larger simulated universes, so that we can understand how large populations of black holes and galaxies influence each other in a cosmological context."

The team ran their simulations with the extensive computing resources of the Center for Parallel Astrophysical Computing at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and at the Rechenzentrum der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft in Garching.

Explore further: NASA ultra-black nano-coating to be applied to 3-D new solar coronagraph

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Big black holes can block new stars

Oct 21, 2014

Massive black holes spewing out radio-frequency-emitting particles at near-light speed can block formation of new stars in aging galaxies, a study has found.

Chandra's archives come to life

19 hours ago

Every year, NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory looks at hundreds of objects throughout space to help expand our understanding of the Universe. Ultimately, these data are stored in the Chandra Data Archive, ...

New radio telescope ready to probe

Oct 21, 2014

Whirring back and forth on a turning turret, the white, 40-foot dish evokes the aura of movies such as "Golden Eye" or "Contact," but the University of Arizona team of scientists and engineers that commissioned ...

Hungry black hole eats faster than thought possible

Oct 08, 2014

Astronomers have discovered a black hole that is consuming gas from a nearby star 10 times faster than previously thought possible. The black hole—known as P13—lies on the outskirts of the galaxy NGC7793 ...

Composite image shows two black holes orbiting each other

Oct 03, 2014

The image above shows two supermassive black holes orbiting each other. It is a composite image where the blue/white indicates x-rays and the pink indicates radio wavelengths. It may look like they are orbiting ...

Hubble finds jets and explosions in NGC 7793

Sep 29, 2014

(Phys.org) —This new image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows NGC 7793, a spiral galaxy in the constellation of Sculptor some 13 million light-years away from Earth. NGC 7793 is one of the brightest ...

Recommended for you

China launches first mission to moon and back

38 minutes ago

China launched its first space mission to the moon and back early Friday, authorities said, the latest step forward for Beijing's ambitious programme to one day land a Chinese citizen on the Earth's only ...

Close encounters: Comet siding spring seen next to mars

9 hours ago

(Phys.org) —This composite NASA Hubble Space Telescope Image captures the positions of comet Siding Spring and Mars in a never-before-seen close passage of a comet by the Red Planet, which happened at 2:28 ...

User comments : 0