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Adjunct Professor van Breugel Leads Star Formation Discovery

January 10, 2005
Radio jets from black holes collapse gas clouds into stars, van Breugel and colleagues observe

MERCED, CA — UC Merced adjunct professor Willem van Breugel helped lead a team of astronomers who have discovered how ominous black holes can create life in the form of new stars, proving that jet-induced star formation may have played an important role in the formation of galaxies in the early universe.

Using the Very Large Array at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in New Mexico, the Keck telescopes in Hawaii and the Hubble Space Telescope, van Breugel and fellow astronomer Steve Croft have shown that Minkowski's Object, a peculiar starburst system in the NGC 541 radio galaxy, formed when a radio jet — undetectable in visible light but revealed by radio observations — emitted from a black hole collided with dense gas. Van Breugel and Croft carried out the observations after computer simulations at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) by researchers Chris Fragile, Peter Anninos and Stephen Murray had shown that jets might trigger the collapse of interstellar clouds and induce star formation.

The astronomers present their findings today (Jan. 10) at the American Astronomical Society 205 thnational meeting, in San Diego, Calif.

“Some 20 years ago, this kind of thinking was thought to be science fiction,” said van Breugel, who works with Croft at LLNL's Institute for Geophysics and Planetary Physics along with his adjunct appointment at UC Merced. “It brings poetic justice to black holes because we think of them as sucking things in, but we've shown that when a jet emits from a black hole, it can bring new life by collapsing clouds and creating new stars.”

Radio jets are formed when material falls into massive black holes. Magnetic fields around the black holes accelerate electrons to almost the speed of light. These electrons are then propelled out in narrow jets and radiate at radio frequencies because of their motion in the magnetic fields. The jets may affect the formation of stars when they collide with dense gas. The regions between stars in a galaxy are filled with mainly gas and dust, and are commonly called the interstellar medium. The gas appears primarily in two forms as cold clouds of atomic or molecular hydrogen or as hot ionized hydrogen near young stars.

But only recently have van Breugel and Croft figured out how this happens. In the case of the recent discovery, the researchers observed that when a radio jet ran into a hot dense hydrogen medium in NGC 541, the medium started to cool down and formed a large neutral hydrogen cloud and, in turn, triggered star formation. Although the cloud did not emit visible radiation, it was detected by its radio frequency emission.

“The formation of massive black holes is critical to the formation of new galaxies,” Croft said.

Van Breugel, who has been studying black holes for more than 20 years, said the recent observations are another good reason to study the relationship between black holes and early galaxies. He said the conditions his team saw in NGC 541 may be important in understanding the formation of galaxies in the early universe. “Our observations show that jets from black holes can trigger extra star formation. In the early universe this process may be important because the galaxies are still young, with lots of hydrogen gas but few stars, and the black holes are more active,” he said.

NGC 541 is approximately 216 million light years away and is roughly half the size of the Milky Way, the spiral-shaped galaxy where our solar system resides.

In addition to van Breugel and Croft, other collaborators on the project include W. de Vries, UC Davis; J. H. van Gorkom, Columbia University; R. Morganti, T. Osterloo, ASTRON, Netherlands; M. Dopita, Australian National University, C. Fragile, UC Santa Barbara, P. Anninos and S. Murray, LLNL.

Founded in 1952, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is a national security laboratory, with a mission to ensure national security and apply science and technology to the important issues of our time. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is managed by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration.