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Astronomers Discover Spectacular Structure in Distant Galaxy

For more information on this research, see Some Background Information

Researchers using the National Science Foundation's Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope have imaged a "spectacular and complex structure" in a galaxy 50 million light-years away. Their work both resolves a decades-old observational mystery and revises current theories about the origin of X-ray emission coming from gas surrounding the galaxy.

The new VLA image is of the galaxy M87, which harbors at its core a supermassive black hole spewing out jets of subatomic particles at nearly the speed of light and also is the central galaxy of the Virgo Cluster of galaxies. The VLA image is the first to show detail of a larger structure that originally was detected by radio astronomers more than a half-century ago. Analysis of the new image indicates that astronomers will have to revise their ideas about the physics of what causes X-ray emission in the cores of many galaxy clusters.

Frazer Owen of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Socorro, NM; Jean Eilek of the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology (NM Tech) in Socorro, NM; and Namir Kassim of the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC, announced their discovery at the American Astronomical Society's meeting today in Austin, TX.

The new observations show two large, bubble-like lobes, more than 200,000 light-years across, that emit radio waves. These lobes, which are intricately detailed, apparently are powered by gravitational energy released from the black hole at the galaxy's center. "We think that material is flowing outward from the galaxy's core into these large, bright, radio-emitting 'bubbles,'" Owen said.

The newly-discovered "bubbles" sit inside a region of the galaxy known to be emitting X-rays. Theorists have speculated that this X-ray emission arises when gas that originally was part of the Virgo Cluster of galaxies, cools and falls inwards onto M87 itself, at the center of the cluster. Such "cooling flows" are commonly thought to be responsible for strong X-ray emission in many galaxy clusters.

"The new structures that we found in M87 show that the story is much more complicated," Eilek said. "What we know about radio jets suggests that the energy being pumped into this region from the galaxy's central black hole exceeds the energy being lost in the X-ray emission. This system is more like a heating flow than a cooling flow. We're going to have to revise our ideas about the physics of what's going on in regions like this."

M87, discovered by the French astronomer Charles Messier in 1781, is the strongest radio-emitting object in the constellation Virgo. Its jet was described by Lick Observatory astronomer Heber Curtis in 1918 as "a curious straight ray ... apparently connected with the nucleus by a thin line of matter." In 1954, Walter Baade reported that the jet's light is strongly polarized. M87's X-ray emission was discovered in 1966. M87 is the largest of the thousands of galaxies in the Virgo Cluster. The Local Group of galaxies, of which our own Milky Way is one, is part of the Virgo Cluster's outskirts.

The galaxy's radio emissions first were observed by Australian astronomers in 1947, but the radio telescopes of that time were unable to discern much detail. They could, however, show that there is a structure more than 100,000 light-years across.

Subsequent radio images, particularly those made using the sharp radio "vision" of the VLA, were primarily aimed at studying the inner 10,000 light-years or so, and showed great detail in the galaxy's jet. Astronomers even have followed the motions of concentrations of material within the jet over time. These observations, however, did not show much about the larger structure that was seen by earlier radio astronomers, leaving its details largely a mystery.

Radio Images of M87 at Vastly Different Size Scales

The mystery was solved by using the VLA to observe at longer radio wavelengths, thus revealing larger-scale structures. The processing speeds of modern computers and recently-developed imaging techniques also were necessary to show the exquisite details seen in the newest VLA image of M87.

The result was spectacular. "Not only did we see beautiful details that we hadn't seen before, but we also got a new and more complicated idea of the physics of this region," Owen said.

"The theories about cooling flows offered an explanation for the X-ray emission in galaxy clusters, but critics contended that other evidence we should see for this infalling matter, such as new stars forming in the denser parts of the flows, was absent," Owen said. "Now, in this case, we see that the inward flow can be counterbalanced by the energy coming outward from the galaxy's core, so the material may not become dense enough to trigger star formation."

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.

This is a VLA image of the galaxy M87, showing details of the large-scale, radio-emitting "bubbles" believed to be powered by the black hole at the galaxy's center. The galaxy's center (and the black hole) lie deep within the bright, reddish region in this image. The structure in this image is approximately 200,000 light-years across. This image was made at a radio wavelength of 90 centimeters.

CREDIT: F.N. Owen, J.A. Eliek and N.E. Kassim, National Radio Astronomy Observatory, Associated Universities, Inc.