An X-ray of an underachieving black hole

Astronomers this week announced they have discovered a supermassive black hole that is not living up to expectations. Despite being responsible for high levels of radiation and powerful jets, this giant black hole is nowhere near as influential as many of its counterparts in other galaxies.

The researchers used NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory to look at the closest quasar to Earth which is also in a cluster of galaxies. A quasar is a special kind of black hole that is pulling in material at such a rapid rate that it produces intense radiation and even powerful jets at times. This particular quasar is known as H1821+643 and is about 3.4 billion light-years away from our planet. Oh, and also, this underachiever weighs about four billion times our Sun.

Conventional black holes generally pull in material much slower than those in quasars. In previous studies, astronomers have studied the impact of these more common black holes by observing the centers of galaxy clusters. Regular outbursts from these conventional black holes prevent the huge amount of superheated gas around them from cooling down. This limits how many stars form in their host galaxies and how much fuel gets funneled towards the black hole.

“We have found that the quasar in our study appears to have relaxed much of the control imposed by more slowly growing black holes. The black hole’s appetite is not matched by its influence,” said Helen Russell of the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, who led the new study, in a press statement.

The researchers used Chandra to find that the density of gas near the black hole in the center of the galaxy is much higher and the gas temperature much lower than in parts of the galaxy further away. Scientists expect hot gas to behave like this when there is next to no energy input.

“The giant black hole is generating a lot less heat than most of the others in the centers of galaxy clusters. This allows the hot gas to rapidly cool down and form new stars, and also act as a fuel source for the black hole,” added co-author Lucy Clews of the Open University in the UK.

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