Galaxy’s ‘Midlife Crisis’ Linked to Its Feasting Black Hole

As with all celestial bodies, galaxies— huge collections of gas, dust, and billions of stars—evolve throughout their lifetimes. During what some call a “midlife crisis,” galaxies with an active galactic nucleus (AGN) blast away most of their gas into intergalactic space. Now, in a new study, NYU Abu Dhabi researchers outline a glimpse of one of these massive gas-blasting galaxies. This gives us further insight into what exactly catalyzes the process.

DesignTAXI picked up on the new study published in The Astrophysical Journal. Aisha Al Yazeedi, a research scientist at NYU Abu Dhabi, led the team. The scientists aimed to consider the relationship between the properties of a given AGN and its host galaxy. Additionally, they wanted to look at how this relationship influenced the massive outgassing period of the latter’s life.

A spiral galaxy glowing with stars and a brilliantly luminous active galactic nucleus. This galaxy could go through a midlife crisis.

Judy Schmidt/ Creative Commons License

In their paper, Al Yazeedi and her colleagues took a look at data astronomers collected from MaNGA 1-166919. Astronomers believe this galaxy has an AGN. The AGN, in this case, as in most others, is likely an active supermassive black hole (SMBH). “Active” meaning that the supermassive black hole is sucking in the matter around it with its immense gravity. In turn, heating the matter so much it glows.

The researchers looked at data from MaNGA 1-166919’s AGN in both the optical and radio wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum. And while the images above and below are false-color glimpses of other galaxies’ AGNs unrelated to this study, they give a sense of what Al Yazeedi et al. analyzed. (Note that “false color” means the images give color to light in the non-visual portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.)

A false-color image of an active galactic nucleus (or AGN) at the center of a glowing, red galaxy. This galaxy could go through a midlife crisis.

Judy Schmidt/ Creative Commons License

As for what they found, the researchers say MaNGA 1-166919 shoots out gas in a “biconical” flow. This means two cone-shaped gas jets are spewing out the center of MaNGA 1-166919 perpendicular to the galaxy’s plane. The researchers say this outflow appears consistent with the theory of AGNs driving massive galactic outgassing. The researchers were also able to confirm radio and optical data astronomers collected from MaNGA 1-166919 agree with each other. Again, evidence supporting the AGN is the gas-blasting catalyst.

“Observational studies, including our research, are essential to clarify how the central SMBH can influence the evolution of its entire host galaxy and prove key theoretical concepts in the field of astrophysics,” Al Yazeedi said in a press release. And it’s important to understand galactic evolution. Running out of gas means a galaxy no longer has the material it needs to make stars. And once those die out, only a hungry supermassive black hole remains, lurking in the darkness.

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