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NGC 660

December 17, 2013

Black holes don’t have especially good table manners. They’re ravenous eaters, sometimes devouring entire stars at a single meal. And they sometimes leave a big mess around them, expelling clouds and jets of material into space.

An example may be in the heart of NGC 660, a galaxy more than 40 million light-years away in the constellation Pisces.

A team of astronomers was studying NGC 660 and several other galaxies with a giant radio telescope. Over a period of a few years, the core of NGC 660 grew much brighter. Follow-up observations with a network of radio telescopes showed that the outburst almost certainly came from the supermassive black hole at the galaxy’s center.

The black hole may be “feeding” on a disk of hot gas that’s spiraling inward. Powerful magnetic fields shoot some of the gas back into space before it enters the black hole. That forms high-speed jets that can stretch across many light-years. The jets appear to be wobbling like streams of water from a spinning lawn sprinkler. The jets hit surrounding clouds of gas and dust, causing the clouds to glow brightly at radio wavelengths.

If that’s the correct scenario, then the heart of NGC 660 is being lit up by part of a meal that’s escaping the jaws of a black hole.

Pisces stretches across the south as night falls this evening. You need a telescope to see NGC 660, along the border between Pisces and the adjoining constellation Aries.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2013

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