PASADENA, Calif. — The Herschel Space Observatory has shown galaxies with the most powerful, active black holes at their cores produce fewer stars than galaxies with less active black holes. The results are the first to demonstrate black holes suppressed galactic star formation when the universe was less than half its current age. Herschel is a European Space Agency-led mission with important NASA contributions.
“We want to know how star formation and black hole activity are linked,” said Mathew Page of University College London’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory in the United Kingdom and lead author of a paper describing these findings in this week’s journal Nature. “The two processes increase together up to a point, but the most energetic black holes appear to turn off star formation.”
Supermassive black holes, weighing as much as millions of suns, are believed to reside in the hearts of all large galaxies. When gas falls upon these monsters, the material is accelerated and heated around the black hole, releasing great torrents of energy. Earlier in the history of the universe, these giant, luminous black holes, called active galactic nuclei, were often much brighter and more energetic. Star formation was also livelier back then.
Studies of nearby galaxies suggest active black holes can squash star formation. The revved-up, central black holes likely heat up and disperse the galactic reservoirs of cold gas needed to create new stars. These studies have only provided “snapshots” in time, however, leaving the overall relationship of active galactic nuclei and star formation unclear, especially over the cosmic history of galaxy formation.