Scientists hope new data will shed light on how black holes consume matter

A NASA infrared composite image taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope shows a panoramic view of the Andromeda galaxy in 2006. New data from the galaxy is helping scientists understand the eating habits of supermassive black holes, they announced Thursday. Image courtesy of NASA/UPI

May 9 (UPI) -- Researchers are hoping that new images and data from NASA can help explain the voracious appetites of black holes and give scientists new information about why some of the massive and largely unexplained regions of immense gravity shine brighter than others when consuming space dust, researchers reported Thursday.

Space scientists are using data gathered from the retired Spitzer Space Telescope to analyze dust and gas that have been flowing toward the center of the massive black hole at the heart of the Andromeda galaxy.

The steams of gas and dust entering the black hole can help scientists understand how black holes, which are billions of times the mass of our sun, can remain what are known as "quiet" eaters.

"As supermassive black holes gobble up gas and dust, the material gets heated up just before it falls in, creating incredible light shows -- sometimes brighter than an entire galaxy full of stars," a release from NASA said. "When the material is consumed in clumps of different sizes, the brightness of the black hole fluctuates."

The black holes at the center of the Milky Way and its galactic neighbor, Andromeda, are among the "quietest" eaters in the universe.

"What little light they emit does not vary significantly in brightness, suggesting they are consuming a small but steady flow of food, rather than large clumps. The streams approach the black hole little by little, and in a spiral, similar to the way the water swirls down a drain," NASA said.

Earlier this year, researchers simulated how dust and gas near Andromeda's black hole might behave over time.

Researchers found "that those streams [of gas and dust] have to stay within a particular size and flow rate; otherwise, the matter would fall into the black hole in irregular clumps, causing more light fluctuation," NASA reported.

The authors then compared their findings with data gathered from Spitzer and NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, and found spirals of dust previously identified by Spitzer that fit the necessary constraints. With that information, the researchers concluded that the spirals are feeding Andromeda's supermassive black hole.

"This is a great example of scientists re-examining archival data to reveal more about galaxy dynamics by comparing it to the latest computer simulations," said Almudena Prieto, an astrophysicist at the Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands and the University Observatory Munich, and a co-author on the study published this year. "We have 20-year-old data telling us things we didn't recognize in it when we first collected it."