have come to the fore
as engines of galactic evolution,
but new observations of the Milky Way
and its central hole
don't yet hang together.
On May 12, at nine simultaneous press conferences around the world, astrophysicists revealed the first image of the black hole at the heart of the Milky Way.
At first, awesome though it was, the painstakingly produced image of the ring of light around our galaxy's central pit of darkness seemed to merely prove what experts already expected:
And yet, on closer inspection, things don't quite stack up.
The answer is: not quickly at all.
Somehow only a thousandth of the matter that's flowing into the Milky Way from the surrounding intergalactic medium makes it all the way down and into the hole.
Over the past quarter century, astrophysicists have come to recognize what a tight-knit, dynamic relationship exists between many galaxies and the black holes at their centers.
These giant holes - concentrations of matter so dense that gravity prevents even light from escaping - are like the engines of galaxies, but researchers are only beginning to understand how they operate.
Gravity draws dust and gas inward to the galactic center, where it forms a swirling accretion disk around the supermassive black hole, heating up and turning into white-hot plasma.
Then, when the black hole engulfs this matter (either in dribs and drabs or in sudden bursts), energy is spat back out into the galaxy in a feedback process.
This feedback affects star formation rates and gas flow patterns throughout the galaxy.
But researchers have only vague ideas about supermassive black holes' "active" episodes, which turn them into so-called active galactic nuclei (AGNs).
Stellar feedback, which occurs when a star explodes as a supernova, is known to have similar effects as AGN feedback on a smaller scale.
These stellar engines are easily big enough to regulate small "dwarf" galaxies, whereas only the giant engines of supermassive black holes can dominate the evolution of the largest "elliptical" galaxies.
Size-wise, the Milky Way, a typical spiral galaxy, sits in the middle.
With few obvious signs of activity at its center, our galaxy was long thought to be dominated by stellar feedback. But several recent observations suggest that AGN feedback shapes it as well.
By studying the details of the interplay between these feedback mechanisms in our home galaxy - and grappling with puzzles like the current dimness of Sagittarius A* - astrophysicists hope to figure out how galaxies and black holes co-evolve in general.
The Milky Way,
By serving as a microcosm, it "may hold the key."
By the late 1990s, astronomers generally accepted the presence of black holes in galaxies' centers.
By then they could see close enough to these invisible objects to deduce their mass from the movements of stars around them.
The correlation is surprising when you consider that the black hole - big as it is - is a scant fraction of the galaxy's size. (Sagittarius A* weighs roughly 4 million suns, for instance, while the Milky Way measures some 1.5 trillion solar masses.)
Because of this, the black hole's gravity only pulls with any strength on the innermost region of the galaxy.
To Martin Rees, the United Kingdom's Astronomer Royal, AGN feedback offered a natural way to connect the relatively tiny black hole to the galaxy at large.
Two decades earlier, in the 1970s, Rees correctly hypothesized that supermassive black holes power the luminous jets observed in some far-off, brightly glowing galaxies called quasars.
He even proposed, along with Donald Lynden-Bell, that a black hole would explain why the Milky Way's center glows.
Could these be signs of a general phenomenon that governs the size of supermassive black holes everywhere?
The first-ever image of Sagittarius A*,
the Milky Way's supermassive black hole,
was taken by a global consortium of radio telescopes
as the Event Horizon Telescope.
The idea was that the more matter a black hole swallows, the brighter it gets, and the increased energy and momentum blows gas outward.
Eventually, the outward pressure stops gas from falling into the black hole.
A very big galaxy puts more weight on the central black hole, making it harder to blow gas outward, and so the black hole grows bigger before it swallows.
Yet few astrophysicists were convinced that the energy of in-falling matter could be ejected in such a dramatic way.
They knew the basic picture: Galaxies start out small and dense in the early universe.
Wind the clock forward and gravity smashes these dwarfs together in a blaze of spectacular mergers, forming rings, whirlpools, cigars and every shape in between.
Galaxies grow in size and variety until, after enough collisions, they become big and smooth.
In the simulations, she and her colleagues could re-create these large featureless blobs, called elliptical galaxies, by merging spiral galaxies many times.
But there was a problem...
While spiral galaxies like the Milky Way have many young stars that glow blue, giant elliptical galaxies only contain very old stars that glow red.
But every time the team ran their simulation, it spat out ellipticals that glowed blue.
Whatever was switching off star formation hadn't been captured in their computer model.
Then, Springel said,
By reproducing red-and-dead ellipticals, the simulation bolstered the black hole feedback theories of Rees and Natarajan.
A black hole, despite its relatively tiny size, can talk to the galaxy as a whole through feedback.
Over the last two decades, the computer models have been refined and expanded to simulate large swaths of the cosmos, and they broadly match the eclectic galaxy zoo we see around us.
These simulations also show that ejected energy from black holes fills the space between galaxies with hot gas that otherwise should have already cooled and turned into stars.
Mysteries of Feedback
Yet the computer simulations are still surprisingly blunt.
As matter creeps inward to the accretion disk around a black hole, friction causes energy to be pushed back out; the amount of energy lost this way is something the coders put into their simulations by hand through trial and error.
It's a sign that the details are still elusive.
The truth is that astrophysicists don't really know how AGN feedback works.
They know that some energy is emitted as radiation, which gives the centers of active galaxies their characteristic bright glow.
Strong magnetic fields cause matter to fly out from the accretion disk too, either as diffuse galactic winds or in powerful narrow jets.
The mechanism by which black holes are thought to launch jets, called the Blandford-Znajek process, was identified in the 1970s, but what determines the beam's power, and how much of its energy gets absorbed by the galaxy, is,
The galactic wind, which emanates spherically from the accretion disk and so tends to interact more directly with the galaxy than the narrow jets, is even more mysterious.
Jets emerging from the black hole
in the center of the galaxy Cygnus A
create massive interstellar blobs,
visible here in radio waves.
One sign that there's still a problem is that the black holes in state-of-the-art cosmological simulations end up smaller than the observed sizes of real supermassive black holes in some systems.
To switch off star formation and create red-and-dead galaxies, the simulations need black holes to eject so much energy that they choke off the inward flux of matter, so that the black holes stop growing.
The Milky Way exemplifies the opposite problem:
By taking a closer look at the Milky Way and nearby galaxies, researchers hope we can begin to unravel precisely how AGN feedback works.
Milky Way Ecosystem
The vast bubbles of X-rays resembled equally baffling bubbles of gamma rays that, 10 years earlier, the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope detected emanating from the galaxy.
Two origin theories of the Fermi bubbles were still being hotly debated.
Giant bubbles of X-rays (blue) and gamma rays (red)
extending off the plane of the Milky Way
are thought to trace back to a jet that temporarily
emanated from the galaxy's central black hole.
When Hsiang-Yi Karen Yang of National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan saw the image of the eROSITA X-ray bubbles, she "started jumping up and down."
It was clear to Yang that the X-rays could have a common origin with the gamma rays if both were generated by the same AGN jet. (The X-rays would come from shocked gas in the Milky Way rather than from the jet itself.)
The results, published in Nature Astrophysics this past spring, not only replicate the shape of the observed bubbles and a bright shock front, but predict that they formed over the course of 2.6 million years (expanding outward from a jet that was active for 100,000 years) - far too quickly to be explained by stellar feedback.
The finding suggests that AGN feedback may be far more important in run-of-the-mill disk galaxies like the Milky Way than researchers used to think.
The picture that's emerging is akin to that of an ecosystem, Yang said, where AGN and stellar feedback are intertwined with the diffuse, hot gas that surrounds galaxies, called the circumgalactic medium.
Different effects and flow patterns will dominate in different galaxy types and at different times.
A case study of the Milky Way's past and present could unveil the interplay of these processes.
Europe's Gaia space telescope, for example, has mapped the precise positions and movements of millions of the Milky Way's stars, allowing astrophysicists to retrace the history of its mergers with smaller galaxies.
Such merger events have been hypothesized to activate supermassive black holes by shaking matter into them, causing them to suddenly brighten and even launch jets.
The Gaia star data suggests that the Milky Way did not undergo a merger at the time that the Fermi and eROSITA bubbles formed, disfavoring mergers as the triggers of the AGN jet.
The Gaia spacecraft's measurements
of the positions and velocities of millions of stars
and other objects in and around the Milky Way
have allowed astronomers to unravel the history
of the galaxy's mergers with smaller galaxies.
These mergers left traces in the form of streams of stars.
Alternatively, blobs of gas may just happen to collide with the black hole and activate it. It might chaotically switch between eating, belching out energy as jets and galactic winds, and pausing.
The Event Horizon Telescope's recent image of Sagittarius A*, which reveals its current trickle of in-falling matter, presents a new puzzle to solve.
Astrophysicists already knew that not all of the gas that is drawn into a galaxy will make it to the black hole horizon, since galactic winds push outward against this accretion flow.
But the strength of the winds required to explain such an extremely tapered flow is unrealistic.
Part of the challenge in understanding how galaxies work is the huge difference between the length scales at play in stars and black holes and the scales of entire galaxies and their surroundings.
When simulating a physical process on a computer, researchers pick a scale and include relevant effects at that scale. But in galaxies, big and small effects interact.
To try and bridge this gap, Narayan, Natarajan and colleagues are launching a project that will use nested simulations to build a coherent model of how gas flows through the Milky Way and the nearby active galaxy Messier 87.
The simulations should help clarify the flow pattern of the diffuse gas in and around galaxies. (Further observations of the circumgalactic medium by the James Webb Space Telescope will help as well.)
Crucially, in the new scheme, all inputs and outputs between simulations of different scales must be consistent, leaving fewer dials to twiddle.
The group hopes to create a series of snapshots of the galaxies during different phases of their evolution.
For now, much about these galactic ecosystems is still a hunch.