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Colossal Galactic Explosions [Preview]

Enormous outpourings of gas from the centers of nearby galaxies may ultimately help explain both star formation and the intergalactic medium

Millions of galaxies shine in the night sky, most made visible by the combined light of their billions of stars. In a few, however, a pointlike region in the central core dwarfs the brightness of the rest of the galaxy. The details of such galactic dynamos are too small to be resolved even with the Hubble Space Telescope. Fortunately, debris from these colossal explosions--in the form of hot gas glowing at temperatures well in excess of a million degrees--sometimes appears outside the compact core, on scales that can be seen directly from Earth.

The patterns that this superheated material traces through the interstellar gas and dust surrounding the site of the explosion provide important clues to the nature and history of the powerful forces at work inside the galactic nucleus. Astronomers can now determine what kind of engines drive these dynamos and the effects of their tremendous outpourings on the intergalactic medium.

Furthermore, because such cataclysms appear to have been taking place since early in the history of the universe, they have almost certainly affected the environment in which our own Milky Way galaxy evolved. Understanding how such events take place today may illuminate the distribution of chemical elements that has proved crucial to formation of stars like the sun.

Astronomers have proposed two distinctly different mechanisms for galactic dynamos. The first was the brainchild of Martin J. Rees of the University of Cambridge and Roger D. Blandford, now at Stanford University. During the early 1970s, the two sought to explain the prodigious luminosity--thousands of times that of the Milky Way--and the spectacular radio jets (highly focused streams of energetic material) that stretch over millions of light-years from the centers of some hyperactive young galaxies known as quasars. They suggested that an ultramassive black hole--not much larger than the sun but with perhaps a million times its mass--could power a quasar.

A black hole itself produces essentially no light, but the disk of accreted matter spiraling in toward the hole heats up and radiates as its density increases. The inner, hotter part of the disk produces ultraviolet and x-ray photons over a broad range of energies, a small fraction of which are absorbed by the surrounding gas and reemitted as discrete spectral lines of ultraviolet and visible light. In the years since Rees and Blandford proposed their model, astronomers have come to understand that similar black holes may be responsible for the energy output of nearer active galaxies.

As the disk heats up, gas in its vicinity reaches temperatures of millions of degrees and expands outward from the galactic nucleus at high speed. This flow, an enormous cousin to the solar wind that streams away from the sun or other stars, can sweep up other interstellar gases and expel them from the nucleus. The resulting luminous shock waves can span thousands of light-years--comparable to the visible sizes of the galaxies themselves--and can be studied from space or ground-based observatories. Some of these galaxies also produce radio jets: thin streams of rapidly moving gas that emit radio waves as they traverse a magnetic field that may be anchored within the accretion disk.

Black holes are not the only engines that drive violent galactic events. Some galaxies apparently undergo short episodes of rapid star formation in their cores: so-called nuclear starbursts. The myriad new stars produce strong stellar winds and, as the stars age, a rash of supernovae. The fast-moving gas ejected from the supernovae strikes the background interstellar dust and gas and heats it to millions of degrees.

The pressure of this hot gas forms a cavity, like a steam bubble in boiling water. As the bubble expands, cooler gas and dust accumulate in a dense shell at the edge of the bubble, slowing its expansion. The transition from free flow inside the bubble to near stasis at its boundary gives rise to a zone of turbulence that is readily visible from Earth. If the energy injected into the cavity is large enough, the bubble bursts out of the galaxy's gas disk and spews the shell's fragments and hot gas into the galaxy halo or beyond, thousands of light-years away from their origins.

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