Brilliant space blobs are powered by black holes

Mysterious, brilliantly glowing blobs of gas in the furthest reaches of the universe have finally been explained by astronomers.

Space blobs
Picture: A combined image of a glowing blob, left, and an artist’s representation of what is happening. (Credits: Left panel: X-ray (NASA/CXC/Durham Univ./D.Alexander et al.); Optical (NASA/ESA/STScI/IoA/S.Chapman et al.); Lyman-alpha Optical (NAOJ/Subaru/Tohoku Univ./T.Hayashino et al.); Infrared (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Durham Univ./J.Geach et al.); Right, Illustration: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss.)

James Geach, of Durham University, used a powerful NASA space telescope to discover that the space blobs are being powered by supermassive black holes hidden behind dense layers of dust and gas.

The bright blobs – immense reservoirs of hydrogen hundreds of thousands of light-years wide – were first spotted around ten years ago during a survey of young, distant galaxies. They glow brightly but the source of the immense energy needed was a mystery until now.

Dr Geach and his team turned NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and other telescopes onto a region of sky dubbed SSA22 where 29 blobs have been seen. They detected bursts of newly-born stars plus streams of radiation that are the tell-tale signs of enormous black holes.

The discovery suggest that blobs mark a stage when the galaxies and black holes are just starting to switch off their rapid growth – a crucial stage in their evolution that astronomers have long been trying to understand.

Dr Geach said: “For ten years the secrets of the blobs had been buried from view, but now we’ve uncovered their power source. Now we can settle some important arguments about what role they played in the original construction of galaxies and black holes.”

The blobs are so far away that they are being seen as they were when the universe was only about two billion years old – around a seventh of its current age.

Dr Geach and his team now want to peer even further back in time to try to catch black holes and galaxies actually forming within the blobs of hydrogen gas.

A supermassive black hole is known to lie at the centre of our own Milky Way galaxy. Chandra’s previous triumphs have included helping take a snaphot of the sky that includes 1,000 black holes.

• Discover space for yourself and do fun science with a telescope. Here is Skymania’s advice on how to choose a telescope. We also have a guide to the different types of telescope available.

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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