Washington: Massive black holes spewing out radio-frequency-emitting particles at near-light speed can block formation of new stars in ageing galaxies, a new study has found.
The research provides crucial new evidence that it is these jets of “radio-frequency feedback” streaming from mature galaxies’ central black holes that prevent hot free gas from cooling and collapsing into baby stars.
“When you look into the past history of the universe, you see these galaxies building stars,” said Tobias Marriage, assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins University and co-lead author of the study.
“At some point, they stop forming stars and the question is: Why? Basically, these active black holes give a reason for why stars stop forming in the universe,” Marriage said.
Johns Hopkins postdoctoral fellow Megan Gralla found that the Sunyaev-Zel’dovich effect signature – typically used to study large galaxy clusters – can also be used to learn a great deal about smaller formations.
The SZ effect occurs when high-energy electrons in hot gas interact with faint light in the cosmic microwave background, light left over from earliest times when the universe was a thousand times hotter and a billion times denser than today.
“The SZ is usually used to study clusters of hundreds of galaxies but the galaxies we’re looking for are much smaller and have just a companion or two,” Gralla said.
“What we’re doing is asking a different question than what has been previously asked,” Gralla said.
“We’re using a technique that’s been around for some time and that researchers have been very successful with, and we’re using it to answer a totally different question in a totally different subfield of astronomy,” Gralla added.
In space, hot gas drawn into a galaxy can cool and condense, forming stars. Some gas also funnels down into the galaxy’s black hole, which grows together with the stellar population.
This cycle can repeat continuously; more gas is pulled in to cool and condense, more stars begin to shine and the central black hole grows more massive.
But in nearly all mature galaxies – the big galaxies called “elliptical” because of their shape – that gas doesn’t cool any more.
“If gas is kept hot, it can’t collapse,” Marriage said. When that happens there are no new stars.
Researchers found that the elliptical galaxies with radio-frequency feedback – relativistic radio-frequency-emitting particles shooting from the massive central black holes at their centre at close to the speed of light – all contain hot gas and a dearth of infant stars.
That provides crucial evidence for their hypothesis that this radio-frequency feedback is the “off switch” for star-making in mature galaxies.
The study was published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.