Black Hole & Baby Star Formation – It’s the Same Science

by | July 2, 2024, 3:30 PM | Stars & Nebulae, Uncategorized

One of the great rules of astronomy is that the same rules of physics we see here, in our corner of the universe are the same rules of physics that control all of space and time. Mostly… some forces only work on tiny scales, so at the atomic level it feels like things I working different. In the very first tiniest fraction of a second, the forces were one force, but they split apart faster than an atom can oscillate. In general, it’s the same physics all the way out.

And this leads to some really cool realities. Consider for a moment the modest ball of incandescent gas that is a star. As suns form, they all start out as a giant clump of gas and dust that collapses for some reason and transforms into a flattened disk with a concentrated core of future star. These cores and disks can even generate magnetic fields, powerful winds, and amazing jets. This transformation is governed by basic things like conservation of momentum, gravity, electromagnetism, and thermodynamics, and there is no reason for the smallest stars… and maybe even the rogue planets… to form any differently from the largest stars out there… 

And now it is appearing that there is also no reason for black holes to form any differently!

In a new paper with lead author Mark Gorski in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics, researchers demonstrate that the supermassive black hole in the core of ESO320-G020 is in some ways just like one of those solar nebulae. Located just 120 million light years from earth, this active galaxy is currently host to cloud of infalling gas that is working it’s way in toward the black hole. 

According to researcher Susanna Aalto, “We can see how the winds form a spiraling structure, billowing out from the galaxy’s centre. When we measured the rotation, mass, and velocity of the material flowing outwards, we were surprised to find that we could rule out many explanations for the power of the wind, star formation for example. Instead, the flow outwards may be powered by the inflow of gas and seems to be held together by magnetic fields.”

This is remarkable like what we see in star formation, and Gorski goes on to explain, “In our observations we see clear evidence of a rotating wind that helps regulate the growth of the galaxy’s central black hole. Now that we know what to look for, the next step is to find out how common a phenomenon this is.”

But how did they get that big?

While it’s awesome to finally be getting a handle on just what’s going on in some galaxies black hole filed cores, we still have one giant problem – we don’t really understand how the black holes got there.

Once upon a time, in that simpler universe we could imagine before we got all of JWST’s pesky data, we theorized that early galaxies were small with small black holes, and we’d be able to see things build larger and larger over the first billion years or so of galaxy formation.

And then we got to actually see galaxies in the first billion years… lots of them… and those galaxy’s SMBHs somehow have already reached 10 billion solar masses in these early times. As a new paper in Nature Astronomy with first author Sarah Bosman points out, this requires something radical to have happened in the early universe.

I can’t explain it any better than Bosman, so I’m just going to read you her words, “Overall, the new observations only add to the mystery: Early quasars were shockingly normal. No matter in which wavelengths we observe them, quasars are nearly identical at all epochs of the Universe. Not only the supermassive black holes themselves, but also their feeding mechanisms were apparently already completely “mature” when the Universe was a mere 5% of its current age. By ruling out a number of alternative solutions, the results strongly support the idea that supermassive black holes started out with considerable masses from the get-go, in astronomy lingo: that they are “primordial” or “seeded large.” Supermassive black holes did not form from the remnants of early stars, then grew massive very fast. They must have formed early with initial masses of at least a hundred thousand solar masses, presumably via the collapse of massive early clouds of gas.”

This again brings us to that idea of black holes forming like stars, only in this case we have some process we didn’t expect, perhaps even forming while our universe was still an ionized mess nuclei before the cosmic Microwave Background even formed. This is a radical idea.

But none of our old ideas fit the data, so … getting radical is going to be required. 

I can’t wait to see just how quickly theories will fly and our field can find some explanation for the universe we now see.