When NASA labels something a "Death Star," you can pretty much rest assured that it will be cool—at least in an astrophysical sense. The recent discovery of a pair of neighboring galaxies, both with supermassive black holes at their centers,inspired the label after NASA researchers found that one galaxy was literally blasting the other with bursts of energy.
A galaxy with a supermassive black hole isn't terribly special—the Milky Way is believed to have one.In the newly-discovered galaxies,however, one of these supermassive black holes has huge jets of energy emanating from it thatare slamming right into the other galaxy. "We've seen many jets produced by black holes, but this is the first time we've seen one punch into another galaxy like we're seeing here," said Dan Evans, a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the leader of the study. "This jet could be causing all sorts of problems for the smaller galaxy it is pummeling."
The Death Star galaxy, officially called 3C321, was discovered from a combination of space and ground-based telescopes.NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, Hubble Space Telescope,Spitzer Space Telescope, the Very Large Array (VLA), andMulti-Element Radio Linked Interferometer Network (MERLIN) telescopes were all in on the action in finding this astronomical phenomenon.
Multi-spectrum image of a jet from a supermassive black hole in the
lower left galaxy slamming into the galaxy in the upper right
(Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/CfA/D.Evans et al.; Optical/UV: NASA/STScI;
Radio: NSF/VLA/CfA/D.Evans et al., STFC/JBO/MERLIN)
The jets coming from the supermassive black hole consist of high energy particles traveling at nearly the speed of light, and theyproducemassive radiation in the forms of X-rays and gamma rays. Jetslike thesecan be seen allover the visible universe, but scientists barely understand them. The new discoveryprovides a unique opportunity to study the effects of a jet interacting with other matter.
Images from MERLIN and the VLAshow the energyjet striking the companion galaxy, and also show that the collision dissipates some of the jet's energy. Astronomers have concluded that the collision disrupts and deflects the jet. Data from Chandra and the VLA shows that the interaction in 3C321 isrelatively new, beginning only one million years ago, makingthis an even more unique opportunity for scientists.
While getting slammed from asupermassive black hole's energy jet would seem to be the beginning of atough day, scientists suggest that it may not be all bad news. The large amount of energy and mass being injected into the targetgalaxy could precipitate the formation of new stars and planets after the initial destruction subsides.
Astrophysical Journal, to be published.