NASA scientists create black hole fighter jets with a supercomputer
Using the NASA Center for Climate Simulation (NCCS), scientists at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center performed 100 simulations examining jets — narrow beams of energetic particles — that emerge from supermassive black holes at near light speed. These behemoths reside in the centers of active, star-forming galaxies such as our own Milky Way galaxy, and can weigh millions to billions of times the mass of the sun.
While rays and winds flow from this active galactic nuclei (AGN), “they regulate the gas at the center of the galaxy, influencing things like the rate of star formation and how the gas mixes with the surrounding galactic environment,” explained study leader Ryan Tanner, a postdoctoral fellow in NASA Goddard’s X-ray Astrophysics. Laboratory.
“For our simulations, we focused on less-studied low-brightness jets and how they determine the evolution of their host galaxies.” Tanner said. He collaborated with X-ray Astrophysics Laboratory astrophysicist Kimberly Weaver on the computational study, which appears in The astronomical magazine.
Observational evidence for jets and other AGN outflows first came from radio telescopes and later X-ray telescopes from NASA and the European Space Agency. Over the past 30 to 40 years, astronomers, including Weaver, have pieced together an explanation for their origins by connecting optical, radio, ultraviolet, and X-ray observations (see the next image below).
“High brightness jets are easier to find because they create huge structures that can be seen in radio observations,” Tanner explains. “Low brightness jets are challenging to study observationally, so the astronomy community doesn’t understand them either.”
Enter NASA supercomputer simulations. For realistic starting conditions, Tanner and Weaver used the total mass of a hypothetical galaxy the size of the Milky Way. For the gas distribution and other AGN properties, they appeared spiral galaxies such as NGC 1386, NGC 3079 and NGC 4945.
Tanner adapted the Athena code for astrophysical hydrodynamics to examine the effects of the jets and gas on each other across a space of 26,000 light-years, about half the radius of the Milky Way. From the full set of 100 simulations, the team selected 19 – which consumed 800,000 core hours on the NCCS Discover supercomputer – for publication.
“Being able to use NASA’s supercomputing resources allowed us to explore a much larger parameter space than if we had to use more modest resources,” Tanner said. “This led to the uncovering of important relationships that we couldn’t discover with a narrower scope.”
The simulations revealed two important properties of low brightness rays:
- They interact with their host galaxy much more than high brightness jets.
- They affect and are affected by the interstellar medium in the galaxy, leading to a greater variety of shapes than at high brightness shine.
“We have demonstrated the method by which the AGN influences its galaxy and the physical characteristicssuch as shocks in the interstellar medium, which we’ve been observing for about 30 years,” Weaver said. “These results compare well with optical and X-ray observations. I was surprised how well the theory matches observations and answers longstanding questions I’ve had about AGN I studied as a graduate student, such as NGC 1386! And now we can expand to larger samples.”
Ryan Tanner et al, Simulations of AGN-driven galactic outflow morphology and content, The astronomical magazine (2022). DOI: 10.3847/1538-3881/ac4d23
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