Dancing of Orbiting Water Molecules

The VLA 11

A disk of water molecules orbiting a supermassive black hole at the core of a galaxy 60 million light-years away is “reverberating” in response to variations in the energy output from the galaxy’s powerful “central engine” close to the black hole, astronomers say. The team of astronomers used the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope in New Mexico and the 100-meter-diameter radio telescope of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy at Effelsberg, Germany, to observe the galaxy NGC 1068 in the constellation Cetus. They announced their findings today at the American Astronomical Society’s meeting in Atlanta.

The water molecules, in a disk some 5 light-years in diameter, are acting as a set of giant cosmic radio-wave amplifiers, called masers. Using energy radiated by the galaxy’s “central engine,” the molecules strengthen, or brighten, radio emission at a particular frequency as seen from Earth. “We have seen variations in the radio ‘brightness’ of these cosmic amplifiers that we believe were caused by variations in the energy output of the central engine,” said Jack Gallimore, an astronomer at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Charlottesville, VA. “This could provide us with a valuable new tool for learning about the central engine itself,” he added.

Gallimore worked with Stefi Baum of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, MD; Christian Henkel of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany; Ian Glass of the South African Astronomical Observatory; Mark Claussen of the NRAO in Socorro, NM; and Almudena Prieto of the European Southern Observatory in Munich, Germany.

“Our observations show that NGC 1068 is the second-known case of a giant disk of water molecules orbiting a supermassive black hole at a galaxy’s core,” Gallimore said. The first case was the galaxy NGC 4258 (Messier 106), whose disk of radio-amplifying water molecules was measured by the NSF’s Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) radio telescope in 1995. Further VLBA observations of NGC 4258 allowed astronomers to calculate an extremely accurate distance to that galaxy last year.

“We’re excited to find this phenomenon in a second galaxy, but we’re also tantalized by the evidence that these masers respond to variations of the central engine,” Gallimore said. In order to amplify radio signals, masers, like their visible-light counterparts, lasers, require a source of energy, called the pumping energy. The scientists believe the masers in NGC 1068 get that pumping energy from a highly-energetic, superhot disk of material that is being pulled into the black hole. That disk, called an accretion disk, emits X-rays that the astronomers think start a chain of events that powers the masers.

Such accretion disks can be unstable, dramatically changing their energy output from time to time. “When the accretion disk puts out more energy, the masers should brighten, and when it puts out less energy, they should get fainter. If the accretion disk gets too bright, however, water molecules are destroyed and the masers turn off. We think that’s what we’re seeing in this galaxy,” Gallimore said. “We want to watch this in the future to learn more, not only about the masers, but also about the accretion disk itself,” he said.

The strongest evidence that the masers are responding to variations in the output of the central engine came from watching variations in the brightness of masers on opposite sides of the water molecule disk. The masers on both sides of the molecular disk, some 5 light-years across, brightened within about two weeks of each other. “If this were caused by something within that molecular disk itself, it would take about 10,000 years to affect both sides of the disk, because of the orbital times involved. However, both sides of the disk are the same distance from the central engine, so they can both respond to the central engine simultaneously,” Gallimore explained.

The black hole at NGC 1068’s center, the scientists say, is about 10 million times more massive than the Sun.

NGC 1068 also is known as Messier 77 (M77), one of the objects listed in French astronomer Charles Messier’s catalog of non-stellar objects. First observed in 1780, it appeared in the version of Messier’s catalog published in 1781. In 1914, Lowell Observatory astronomer Vesto Slipher measured the Doppler shift in the galaxy’s light, showing that the galaxy is receding from Earth at a speed of about 1,100 kilometers per second. The galaxy’s water masers, which amplify radio signals at a frequency of 22 GHz, were discovered in 1984. The galaxy is visible in moderate-sized amateur telescopes.

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.

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