Black holes seem to defy our comprehension and be contrary to conventional understanding, so perhaps it is not entirely surprising that to find that supermassive black holes that have a retrograde or backwards spin might be more powerful and produce more ferocious jets of gas. While this new finding goes against what astronomers had thought for decades, it also helps solve a mystery why some black holes have no jets at all.
Powerful jets stream out from the accretion disks that spin around many supermassive black holes. The black holes can spin either in the same direction as the disks, called prograde black holes, or against the flow – the retrograde black holes. For decades, astronomers thought that the faster the spin of the black hole, the more powerful the jet. But there were problems with this "spin paradigm" model. For example, some prograde black holes had been found with no jets.
Theoretical astrophysicist David Garofalo and his colleagues have been studying the motion of black holes for years, and in previous papers, they proposed that the backward, or retrograde, black holes spew the most powerful jets, while the prograde black holes have weaker or no jets.
Their new study links their theory with observations of galaxies across time, or at varying distances from Earth. They looked at both "radio-loud" galaxies with jets, and "radio-quiet" ones with weak or no jets. The term "radio" comes from the fact that these particular jets shoot out beams of light mostly in the form of radio waves.
The results showed that more distant radio-loud galaxies are powered by retrograde black holes, while relatively closer radio-quiet objects have prograde black holes. According to the team, the supermassive black holes evolve over time from a retrograde to a prograde state.
"This new model also solves a paradox in the old spin paradigm," said David Meier, a theoretical astrophysicist at JPL not involved in the study. "Everything now fits nicely into place."
The scientists say that the backward black holes shoot more powerful jets because there's more space between the black hole and the inner edge of the orbiting disk. This gap provides more room for the build-up of magnetic fields, which fuel the jets, an idea known as the Reynold's conjecture after the theoretical astrophysicist Chris Reynolds of the University of Maryland, College Park.
"If you picture yourself trying to get closer to a fan, you can imagine that moving in the same rotational direction as the fan would make things easier," said Garofalo. "The same principle applies to these black holes. The material orbiting around them in a disk will get closer to the ones that are spinning in the same direction versus the ones spinning the opposite way."
Jets and winds play key roles in shaping the fate of galaxies. Some research shows that jets can slow and even prevent the formation of stars not just in a host galaxy itself, but also in other nearby galaxies.
"Jets transport huge amounts of energy to the outskirts of galaxies, displace large volumes of the intergalactic gas, and act as feedback agents between the galaxy's very center and the large-scale environment," said team member Rita M. Sambruna, from Goddard Space Flight Center. "Understanding their origin is of paramount interest in modern astrophysics."
The team's paper was published in the May 27 Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Nancy Atkinson blogs at Universe Today.