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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Two giant elliptical galaxies, NGC 4621 and NGC 4472, look similar from a distance, as seen on the right in images from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. But zooming into these galaxies' cores with Hubble Space Telescope reveals their differences (left, black and white images). NGC 4621 shows a bright core, while NGC 4472 is much dimmer. The core of this galaxy is populated with fewer stars. Many stars have been slung out of the core when the galaxy collided and merged with another. Their two supermassive black holes orbited each other, and their great gravity sent stars careening out of the galaxy's core. Credit: NASA/AURA/STScI and WikiSky/SDSS

"They evolved in lockstep," said The University of Texas at Austin's John Kormendy, who co-authored the research with Ralf Bender of Germany's Max-Planck-Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics and Ludwig Maximilians University Observatory. The results are puiblished in this week's issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Astronomers know that galaxies, those vast cities of millions or billions of stars, grow larger through collisions and mergers. Kormendy and Bender's work involves the biggest galaxies in the universe--"elliptical galaxies" that are shaped roughly like footballs and that can be made of as many as a thousand billion stars. Virtually all of these galaxies contain a black hole at their centers, that is, an infinitely dense region that contains the mass of millions or billions of Suns and from which no light can escape.

A current leading theory says that when galaxies collide, their black holes end up revolving around each other. Together, the two black holes act like an egg beater: They violently stir up the galaxy center with their incredibly strong gravity, and they fling stars out of the central regions. As the black hole pair sinks to the center of the new merger remnant, this supergalaxy's core is depleted of the stars that were flung away. Kormendy and Bender measured the resulting dimming of such galaxies' cores, their so-called "light deficits."

Light deficits in galaxy cores are surprising in view of decades of work by many astronomers, including Kormendy and Bender, which showed that the biggest elliptical galaxies contain the most massive black holes at their centers. These are monsters "weighing in" at a billion or more times the mass of our Sun. They attract the stars around them with ferociously strong gravity. Astronomers expected that such big black hole would yank the galaxy's stars into a tiny, dense cluster at the center. But observations in the 1980s with ground-based telescopes and much better observations in the 1990s with Hubble Space Telescope revealed the opposite. The biggest galaxies have big, fluffy, low-density centers. Why are giant black holes not surrounded by dense cluster of stars? Where did the missing stars go?


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