The sour-stomached black hole is in the center of galaxy NGC 5195, 26 million light years from Earth. Previously, astronomers have observed several unusual trends in 5195, such as a surprising rate of new star creation and a merger between 5195 and its neighbor, the larger NGC 5194 (also called the Whirlpool Galaxy). The merger won’t be completed for billions of years, but in the meantime the two galaxies continuously interact.
The reason for these occurrences is that 5195’s black hole center is suffering from cosmic indigestion, where it belches some of the matter caught in its gravity back out at high speed. Supermassive black holes are almost always surrounded by what is called an accretion disk: a cloud or ring of matter trapped in its orbit, slowly being pulled in.
But because 5195 is merging with the Whirlpool, every few hundred million years the black hole crosses into the neighboring galaxy and sucks in gigantic amounts of matter. So much matter is moved that eventually not even a monstrous supermassive black hole can handle it all. As matter is pulled into the black hole, bits of starstuff and interstellar matter collide with one another. This eventually creates a shockwave where the black hole ejects accreted matter at amazing speeds.
This interaction was already known to scientists, but a new paper from the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom has elaborated on it. The observation was performed by the e-MERLIN radio array in the United Kingdom, along with previous research done by the Chandra X-ray Observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico.
The new theory, according to study lead Hayden Rampadarath, neatly explains many previously observed phenomena. For instance, Chandra had observed large-scale x-ray arcs emitting from the black hole, while Hubble had long since observed the unusually high rate of new stars forming in 5195 and the Whirlpool.
“The age of the arcs in NGC 5195 is 1-2 million years,” Rampadarath wrote in a statement accompanying the paper. “To put that into context, the first traces of matter were being forced out of the black hole in this system at about the time that our ancestors were learning to make fire. That we are able to observe this event now through such a range of astronomical facilities is quite remarkable.”