NASA's Spitzer helps discover unusual way black holes eat

Like humans, black holes also have different eating habits. While many black holes try to swallow everything at once, causing huge cosmic explosions and intense electromagnetic emissions, others prefer to consume matter slowly and quietly.

Eating habits also affect their glow. For example, the supermassive black holes found at the center of the Milky Way (our galaxy) and Andromeda (the nearest galaxy to the Milky Way) are also “quiet eaters” and shine less than other black holes.

Then how are these black holes so different? Surprisingly, the answer to this question was found hidden in data collected by the retired Spitzer Space Telescope which was active between 2003 and 2020.

Black hole diet and eating behavior

Black holes that consume large amounts of matter at once appear brighter. This is because the stars, gas, and other celestial bodies they eat are rapidly heated by the black hole's strong gravitational pull.

This intense heating results in the release of large amounts of electromagnetic radiation.

“As black holes swallow gas and dust, the material heats up just before collapse, creating incredible light shows – sometimes brighter than an entire galaxy full of stars,” NASA says.

However, other supermassive black holes found at the center of our galaxy show no such light show, and therefore, appear less luminous.

“This is because they are eating a small but steady flow of food, rather than large groups. According to a study published in 2023, the currents approach the black hole slowly and spirally, similar to the way water swirls in a drain.

The authors of the study focused on the supermassive black hole at the center of Andromeda and ran some computer simulations to delve deeper into its eating behavior.

He proposed that a small disk of hot gas (a ring of dust) surrounds the black hole and continues to feed it.

However, scientists found no evidence to confirm the disk's presence, and it remained only a hypothesis until now.

Data from Spitzer and Hubble confirmed the theory

black hole eating behavior
Infrared data from Spitzer showing dust spirals. Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/K. Gordon (University of Arizona)

A 2023 study also suggested that the ring of dust around Andromeda's black hole could only act as a viable food source if it was neither too large nor too small.

This is because objects in the larger disk will not be able to hold on to it for long (due to the strong gravitational pull of the black hole) and will eventually collapse into the black hole all at once, causing intense emission. Whereas, the material from a smaller disk may fall short of satisfying the black hole's appetite.

However, there was no way to confirm whether the black hole had a dust ring of the required size. This was a huge limitation, and this is where the data from the Spitzer telescope played an important role.

When scientists studied images and data collected by Spitzer and then compared this information to the findings of the Hubble Space Telescope.

They found that Spitzer also highlighted the presence of dust spirals around Andromedia's black hole, similar to the dust rings suggested by the 2023 study.

Furthermore, the size of these dust spirals was within the range required to make a black hole a silent eater.

“This is a great example of scientists re-examining archival data to reveal more about the galaxy's dynamics by comparing it with the latest computer simulations. We have 20 years of data that are telling us things that we didn't recognize in it when we first collected it,” said Almudena Prieto, an astrophysicist and one of the authors of the current study.

This study was published by NASA.


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