‘Perfect Storm’ Suffocating Star Formation around a Supermassive Black Hole


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High-energy jets powered by supermassive black holes can blast away a galaxy’s star-forming fuel — resulting in so-called “red and dead” galaxies: those brimming with ancient red stars yet little or no hydrogen gas available to create new ones.

Now astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) have discovered that black holes don’t have to be nearly so powerful to shut down star formation. By observing the dust and gas at the center NGC 1266, a nearby lenticular galaxy with a relatively modest central black hole, the astronomers have detected a “perfect storm” of turbulence that is squelching star formation in a region that would otherwise be an ideal star factory.


Fig 1. Artist impression of the central region of NGC 1266. The jets from the central black hole are creating turbulence in the surrounding molecular gas, suppressing star formation in an otherwise ideal environment to form new stars. Credit: B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

This turbulence is stirred up by jets from the galaxy’s central black hole slamming into an incredibly dense envelope of gas. This dense region, which may be the result of a recent merger with another smaller galaxy, blocks nearly 98 percent of material propelled by the jets from escaping the galactic center.

“Like an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, the molecules in these jets meet so much resistance when they hit the surrounding dense gas that they are almost completely stopped in their tracks,” said Katherine Alatalo, an astronomer with the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and lead author on a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal. This energetic collision produces powerful turbulence in the surrounding gas, disrupting the first critical stage of star formation. “So what we see is the most intense suppression of star formation ever observed,” noted Alatalo.

Previous observations of NGC 1266 revealed a broad outflow of gas from the galactic center traveling up to 400 kilometers per second. Alatalo and her colleagues estimate that this outflow is as forceful as the simultaneous supernova explosion of 10,000 stars. The jets, though powerful enough to stir the gas, are not powerful enough to give it the velocity it needs to escape from the system.

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ALMA Identifies Gas Spirals as a Nursery of Twin Stars


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With new Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) observations, astronomers led by Shigehisa Takakuwa, Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Academia Sinica (ASIAA), Taiwan, have found spiral arms of molecular gas and dust around “baby twin” stars. Gas motions supplying materials to the twin were also identified. These results unveil for the first time, the mechanism of the birth and growth of binary stars, which are ubiquitous throughout the Universe. The study was published on November 20 in The Astrophysical Journal.


Fig 1. Gas and dust disks around L1551 NE spotted by ALMA. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO) / Takakuwa et al.

Stars form in interstellar clouds of molecular gas and dust. Previous studies of star formation focused primarily on single stars like the Sun, and a standard picture of single star formation has been established. According to this picture, a dense gas condensation in an interstellar cloud collapses gravitationally to form a single protostar at the center. Previous observations have found such collapsing gas motions feeding material toward the central protostars.

Compared to single star formation, our understanding of binary star formation has been limited, even though more than half of stars with a mass similar to that of the Sun are known to be binaries. It is thus crucial to observe the physical mechanism of binary formation to obtain a more comprehensive understanding of star formation. Theory suggests that a disk surrounding a young binary will feed material to the central “baby twin” in order for them to grow. While recent observations have found such disks (known as “circumbinary disks”), it was not possible to image the structure and gas motions because of the insufficient imaging resolution and sensitivity.


Fig 2. Comparison of the disks in simulation and observation. The right panel shows the disk image simulated with ATERUI, and the left panel the real ALMA image. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/ Takakuwa et al.

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