Skip to main content

First model to show how gas flows across universe into a supermassive black hole’s center

New simulation shows how galaxies feed their supermassive black holes

First model to show how gas flows across universe into a supermassive black hole’s center

Credit: Anglés-Alcázar et al. 2021, ApJ, 917, 53.

Professor Claude-André Faucher-Giguère

University of Connecticut professor and former CIERA fellow Daniel Anglés-Alcázar

Galaxies’ spiral arms are responsible for scooping up gas to feed to their central supermassive black holes, according to a new high-powered simulation.

Started at Northwestern University, the simulation is the first to show, in great detail, how gas flows across the universe all the way down to the center of a supermassive black hole. While other simulations have modeled black hole growth, this is the first single computer simulation powerful enough to comprehensively account for the numerous forces and factors that play into the evolution of supermassive black holes.

The simulation also gives rare insight into the mysterious nature of quasars, which are incredibly luminous, fast-growing black holes. Some of the brightest objects in the universe, quasars often even outshine entire galaxies.


“The light we observe from distant quasars is powered as gas falls into supermassive black holes and gets heated up in the process,” said Northwestern’s Claude-André Faucher-Giguère, one of the study’s senior authors. “Our simulations show that galaxy structures, such as spiral arms, use gravitational forces to ‘put the brakes on’ gas that would otherwise orbit galaxy centers forever. This breaking mechanism enables the gas to instead fall into black holes and the gravitational brakes, or torques, are strong enough to explain the quasars that we observe.”

Faucher-Giguère is an associate professor of physics and astronomy at Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and a member of the Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics (CIERA). Daniel Anglés-Alcázar, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut and former CIERA fellow in Faucher-Giguère’s group, is the paper’s first author.

Equivalent to the mass of millions or even billions of suns, supermassive black holes can swallow 10 times the mass of a sun in just one year. But while some supermassive black holes enjoy a continuous supply of food, others go dormant for millions of years, only to reawaken abruptly with a serendipitous influx of gas. The details about how gas flows across the universe to feed supermassive black holes have remained a long-standing question.

Continue to the full story on Northwestern News by Amanda Morris.

Learn More