In late March, Japan’s space agency, JAXA, lost communications with its Hitomi spacecraft, an x-ray satellite designed to explore black holes and galaxy clusters. The doomed spacecraft, created as part of a cooperative project with NASA, had several fatal flaws, and JAXA gave up trying to recover control of it in April. But before it broke apart, Hitomi gave us a parting shot, Gizmodo reports.
The image of the Perseus galaxy cluster, home to the most massive black hole ever observed, reveals a surprisingly calm atmosphere. As the first image of a galaxy cluster’s central supermassive black hole stirring hot gas, and the most accurate view of the Perseus x-ray emissions so far, it’s the subject of a new study published in Nature.
Hitomi took the image within its first month after launching. The data on how hot gases move around a black hole gives scientists new insights on why star formation is relatively rare in galaxy clusters.
“We already knew that supermassive black holes, which are found at the center of all galaxy clusters and are tens of billions of times more massive than the Sun, could play a major role in keeping the gas from cooling by somehow injecting energy into it,” explains Norbert Werner of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology, one of the researchers involved in the data analysis. “Now we understand this mechanism better and see that there is just the right amount of stirring motion to produce enough heat."
Another KIPAC researcher, Irina Zhuravleva, explains that the supermassive black hole acts kind of like a spoon stirring cream into coffee as it swirls hot gas around a galaxy cluster. “From what we’ve seen in our data, the rising bubbles drag gas from the cluster center, which explains the filaments of stretched gas in the optical images,” she says. “In this process, turbulence develops. In a way, the bubbles are like spoons that stir milk into a cup of coffee and cause eddies. The turbulence, in turn, heats the gas and suppresses star formation in the cluster.”
By way of apology for the scientific loss of Hitomi’s untimely demise, JAXA executives have elected to take a pay cut for four months this year.
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