November 30, 2000: The Hubble telescope has taken a snapshot of a nearby active galaxy known as Circinus. This active galaxy belongs to a class of mostly spiral galaxies called Seyferts, which have compact centers and are believed to contain massive black holes. Seyfert galaxies are themselves part of a larger class of objects called Active Galactic Nuclei or AGN. AGN have the ability to remove gas from the centers of their galaxies by blowing it out into space at phenomenal speeds. Astronomers studying the Circinus galaxy are seeing evidence of a powerful AGN at its center.
Much of the gas in the disk of the Circinus spiral is concentrated in two specific rings a larger one of diameter 1,300 light-years, which has already been observed by ground-based telescopes, and a previously unseen ring of diameter 260 light-years. In the Hubble image, the smaller inner ring is located on the inside of the green disk. The larger outer ring extends off the image and is in the plane of the galaxy's disk. Both rings are home to large amounts of gas and dust as well as areas of major "starburst" activity, where new stars are rapidly forming on timescales much shorter than the age of the entire galaxy.
At the center of the starburst rings is the Seyfert nucleus, the believed signature of a supermassive black hole that is accreting surrounding gas and dust. The black hole and its accretion disk are expelling gas out of the galaxy's disk and into its halo (the region above and below the disk). The detailed structure of this gas is seen as magenta-colored streamers extending towards the top of the image.
Credits: Credits: NASA, Andrew S. Wilson (University of Maryland); Patrick L. Shopbell (Caltech); Chris Simpson (Subaru Telescope); Thaisa Storchi-Bergmann and F. K. B. Barbosa (UFRGS, Brazil); and Martin J. Ward (University of Leicester, U.K.)