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Black Hole Study Challenges Existing Theories

Jun 20, 2013 12:38 PM EDT

Scientists are being forced to rewrite existing theories on black holes based on the arrival of the most detailed observations yet of the dust surrounding the black hole located at the center of the active galaxy NGC 3783.

For the last 20 years, astronomers have found a black hole at the center of almost all known galaxies, some of which are growing as they draw in matter from their surroundings in one of the most energetic processes in the universe.

Brilliant powerhouses ringed by doughnuts of cosmic dust, they produce the same whirlpool effect found around the drain in a sink or bathtub, dragging everything toward its center; however, instead of water, they absorb silicate and graphite grains, minerals abundant on Earth and similar to soot from a burning candle.

However, new observations of the nearby NGC 3783 black hole produced by the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) portray dust that seems to be resisting this massive pull and instead forming a cool wind streaming outward from the black hole.

According to the researchers, while the reason for this is not entirely clear at this point, it must reside in the complex relationship between the black hole and its environment. Specifically, they believe the intense radiation may be responsible for blowing the material away, though it's uncertain how these two processes - the push and pull - work together to enable supermassive black holes to grow and evolve within galaxies.

For this reason, while the discovery of the dusty wind may represent a challenge to current theories, it also offers a new direction for researchers working to understand the complex space bodies to head in.

In order to make these paradigm-shifting discoveries, astronomers needed to use the combined power of the Unite Telescopes of the ESO's Very Large Telescope together with an interferometer capable of obtaining a resolution equivalent to that of a 130-meter telescope.

As one team member, Gerd Weigelt of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy explained in a press release, by doing this they were able to study a region as small as the distance from the Sun to its closest neighboring star in a galaxy tens of millions of light-years away.

"No other optical or infrared system in the world is currently capable of this," he said.

Going forward, the scientists plan on using MATISSE, a second-generation instrument for the VLTI currently under construction, in order to better understand the mysterious and powerful space bodies.

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