NASA video illustrates 'X-ray wind' blasting from a black hole

It takes a mighty wind to keep stars from forming. Researchers have found one in a galaxy far, far away -- and NASA made a short movie about it.

Michael Franco
Freelancer Michael Franco writes about the serious and silly sides of science and technology for CNET and other pixel and paper pubs. He's kept his fingers on the keyboard while owning a B&B in Amish country, managing an eco-resort in the Caribbean, sweating in Singapore, and rehydrating (with beer, of course) in Prague. E-mail Michael.
Michael Franco
2 min read

This artist's illustration shows interstellar gas, the raw material of star formation, being blown away. ESA/ATG Medialab

In a study published in the journal Nature this week, a researcher shows a link between the X-ray wind created by a supermassive black hole in the center of a galaxy and the broader dispersal of raw material that could have formed stars. A new NASA video (below) provides an easy-to-understand visualization of the process.

Using the Herschel Space Observatory and the X-ray Imaging Spectrometer attached to the Suzaku astronomy satellite, the researchers looked at galaxy F11119+3257, located an extremely far 2.3 billion light-years away. At the center of that galaxy is a black hole as massive as 16 million of our suns.

"Scientists think ultraluminous infrared galaxies like F11119 represent an early phase in the evolution of quasars, a type of black-hole-powered galaxy with extreme luminosity across a broad wavelength range," NASA says in a report about the research.

Emanating from the center of the black hole, the researchers found gas racing outward at a speed of 170 million mph, creating what's known as an X-ray wind. The wind arises because the voracious black hole is devouring the gas around it in the area known as the accretion disk, which leads to superheated conditions. This happens relatively close to the black hole, but the wind stirs a larger molecular outflow and the heat gives rise to a shock wave that ultimately clears out dust and gas in a much larger area. The study estimates that the outflow from this particular black hole extends up to 1,000 light-years from the galaxy's center.

In other words, while busily feeding, a black hole is also "pushing away the dinner plate," the report says. This finding provides astronomers with another piece of the puzzle regarding how black holes are connected to star formation in the galaxies that swirl around them.

"These connections suggested the black hole was providing some form of feedback that modulated star formation in the wider galaxy, but it was difficult to see how," said research team member Sylvain Veilleux, an astronomy professor at University of Maryland. "With the discovery of powerful molecular outflows of cold gas in galaxies with active black holes, we began to uncover the connection."