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'Our mouths started dropping': UAlberta black hole research sheds light on how galaxies form

University of Alberta study is the first to show evidence of strong winds around black holes throughout 'bright outburst' events, when black holes rapidly consume mass.

Artistic rendition of strong winds disrupting the outer disc of material surrounding a stellar-mass black hole. The disk material (mostly in yellow) is first pulled from the outer parts of a nearby star (upper right-hand). The stellar-mass black hole sits at the centre of the approximately five-million-kilometre disc, but it only consumes the material if and when it reaches the central 30 kilometers.

NASA/Swift/A. Simonnet, Sonoma State University / Supplied

Artistic rendition of strong winds disrupting the outer disc of material surrounding a stellar-mass black hole. The disk material (mostly in yellow) is first pulled from the outer parts of a nearby star (upper right-hand). The stellar-mass black hole sits at the centre of the approximately five-million-kilometre disc, but it only consumes the material if and when it reaches the central 30 kilometers.

New University of Alberta research on black holes is shedding light on how galaxies are created.

The research, conducted by an international team led by scientists in the U of A’s physics department, is the first to show evidence of strong winds around black holes throughout “bright outburst” events when black holes rapidly consume mass.

Published in the journal Nature, the study expands scientists’ understanding of the way black holes interact with the environment around them.

“This is part of the emerging picture of how astronomical objects can affect how stars and galaxies formed,” said Gregory Sivakoff, associate professor in the U of A's physics department.

Sivakoff’s research team looked at data from three international space agencies going back to 1996, and pieced together the history of different black holes as they underwent “gorging” events, which are signified by bright outbursts of X-Ray emissions.

The groundbreaking discovery of the strong winds was made by student Bailey Tetarenko.

“When she started showing us the results … I think our mouths started dropping. Because we realized that her results were getting at something very, very critical in our field,” Sivakoff said.

“Oftentimes you’re nibbling at the edges of the field, but this is getting to the heart of our field.”

Researchers found black holes do not consume as much matter as previously thought, possibly due to the winds acting as a barrier.

Sivakoff said they found evidence that as much as 80 per cent of a black hole’s “food” being “thrown on the floor, so to speak.”

The fact that so much material is thrown away and interacts with the galaxy in a different way than previously thought could help explain how black holes affect the formation of galaxies.

Ultimately, the research brings humanity one small step closer to answering its biggest question.

“Our galaxy seems to be a fairly typical galaxy. We know that there is a supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy,” Sivakoff said.

“And so it might mean that as we learn how in general black holes feed and affect their environment, we may be learning more about the specifics of how our supermassive black hole affected how our galaxy formed, and in the end … how we got here. Which I think is one of those fundamental questions in life.”

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