Release 252 of 1,057
Space Telescopes Reveal Secrets of Turbulent Black Hole
Release date: Sep 29, 2011 9:00 AM (EDT)

An international team of astronomers using five different telescopes has uncovered striking features around a supermassive black hole in the core of the distant galaxy Markarian 509. They found a very hot corona hovering above the black hole and cold gas "bullets" in hotter diffuse gas, speeding outward with velocities over 1 million miles per hour. This corona absorbs and reprocesses the ultraviolet light from the accretion disk encircling the black hole, energizing it and converting it into X-rays. This discovery allows astronomers to make sense of some of the observations of active galaxies that have been hard to explain so far. The heart of the campaign consisted of repeated visible, X-ray, and gamma-ray observations with ESA's XMM-Newton and INTEGRAL satellites, which monitored Markarian 509 for six weeks. This was followed by long observations with NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope. Prior to these observations short snapshots to monitor the behavior of the source at all wavelengths were taken with NASA's Swift satellite. The combined efforts of all these instruments gave astronomers an unprecedented insight into the core of an active galaxy.

The Cosmic Origins Spectrograph aboard Hubble reveals that the coolest gas in the line of sight toward Markarian 509 has 14 different velocity components at various locations in the innermost parts of this galaxy. Hubble's data, combined with X-ray observations, show that most of the visible outflowing gas is blown off from a dusty gas disk surrounding the central region more than 15 light-years away from the black hole. This outflow consists of dense, cold blobs or gas bullets embedded in hotter diffuse gas. The international consortium responsible for this campaign consists of 26 astronomers from 21 institutes on 4 continents. The first results of this campaign will be published as a series of seven papers in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics. More results are in preparation. For more information about this study, visit: