A giant, hungry black hole appears to be chowing down on cold, clumpy clouds at the center of a nearby galaxy, a new study finds. The black hole’s dining habits are shedding light on how black holes throughout the universe may grow.
At the heart of nearly every galaxy is a supermassive black hole millions to billions of times the mass of Earth’s sun, most astrophysicists agree. These black holes grow by gobbling up gas, dust and anything else that falls on them (scientists call this process “accreting”). The energy released by this accreting gas can in turn influence the formation of stars across the black hole’s galaxy.
Much remains unknown about the gaseous fuel that powers black hole growth. Scientific models of black hole eating habits are usually simplified to show a smooth, spherical inflow of very hot gas. However, recent theory and computer simulations have predicted that black hole accretion of gas is instead dominated by the random accumulation of very cold, clumpy clouds of molecules, the same material that gives rise to stars. However, researchers have lacked unambiguous evidence for this prediction, but the new study offers a concrete example.
To learn more about black hole gas accretion, astronomers looked toward a cluster of about 50 galaxies collectively known as Abell 2597. The scientists then zeroed in on a single galaxy near the core of Abell 2597, known as the Abell 2597 Brightest Cluster Galaxy, using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile. This galaxy is located…