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NASA’s Chandra Finds Black Holes Are ’Green’


April 24, 2006, Black holes are the most fuel efficient engines in the universe, according to a new study using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. By making the first direct estimate of how efficient or “green” black holes are, this work gives insight into how black holes generate energy and affect their environment.

The new Chandra finding shows most of the energy released by matter falling toward a supermassive black hole is in the form of high-energy jets traveling at near the speed of light away from the black hole. This is an important step in understanding how such jets can be launched from magnetized disks of gas near the black hole’s event horizon, the distance from a black hole within which nothing, even light, can escape.

“Just as with cars, it’s critical to know the fuel efficiency of black holes,” said lead author Steve Allen of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at Stanford University and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, Stanford, Calif. “Without this information, we cannot figure out what is going on under the hood, so to speak, or what the engine can do.”

Allen and his team used Chandra to study nine supermassive black holes at the centers of elliptical galaxies. These black holes ? from .2 to 3 billion times the mass of our sun ? are relatively old and generate much less radiation than quasars, the rapidly growing supermassive black holes seen in the early universe.

The surprise came when the Chandra results showed these “quiet” black holes are all producing much more energy in jets of high-energy particles than in visible light or X-rays. These jets create huge bubbles, or cavities, in the hot gas in the galaxies.

The efficiency of black hole energy-production was calculated in two steps. First, Chandra images of the galaxies’ inner regions were used to estimate how much fuel is available for the black hole. Then, Chandra images were used to estimate the power required to produce the cavities. The galaxies were found to produce a lot of jet power with a surprisingly small amount of fuel.

“If a car was as fuel-efficient as these black holes, it could theoretically travel over a billion miles on a gallon of gas,” said co-author Christopher Reynolds of the University of Maryland, College Park.

The findings explain how black hole engines achieve this extreme efficiency. Some of the gas first attracted to the black holes may be blown away by the energetic activity before it gets too near the black hole, but a significant fraction must eventually approach the event horizon, where it is used with high efficiency to power the jets. The study also implies that matter flows towards the black holes at a steady rate for several million years.

“These black holes are very efficient, but it also takes a very long time to refuel them,” Allen said.

This new study also shows the energy transferred to the hot gas by the jets should keep hot gas from cooling, thereby preventing billions of new stars from forming. This would place limits on the growth of the largest galaxies.

These results will appear in an upcoming issue of the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala., manages the Chandra program for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory controls science and flight operations from the Chandra X-ray Center, Cambridge, Mass.


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