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Getting Away

May 10, 2013

When you think of a black hole, you probably think of material pouring into its voracious maw like water draining down a bathtub, and that’s true enough. But material can also rush away from a black hole like the water rushing out of a showerhead. And both actions — falling in and rushing away — are powered by the black hole.

The most powerful outflow yet seen comes from a quasar — the brilliant center of a distant galaxy. The quasar is powered by material spiraling into a black hole that’s a billion times as massive as the Sun or larger. As it moves inward, this gas is heated to billions of degrees, so it produces enormous amounts of energy.

Astronomers studied the quasar — known by the catalog designation SDSS J1106 — with the Very Large Telescope in Chile. They found that gas is rushing away from the quasar at about 5,000 miles per second. What’s more, this outflow carries enough gas every year to make 400 stars the size of the Sun.

The outflow doesn’t come from inside the black hole itself — nothing can escape a black hole. Instead, it comes from the hot gas around the black hole. Magnetic fields in that gas may power the outflow.

The outflow is so strong that it may clear away gas and dust within hundreds or even thousands of light-years of the supermassive black hole. That would not only stop material from falling into the black hole, it would also shut down the birth of new stars in this galaxy’s busy heart.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2013

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