Dr. Eric Schlegel's x-ray and optical analysis of NGC 5195.

Eric Schlegel has discovered a mystery deep in outer space. The Vaughan Family Endowed Professor in Physics at the University of Texas at San Antonio led a team of researchers from UTSA, Harvard University and other institutions to discover a powerful galactic blast produced by a giant black hole about 26 million light years from Earth.

After tracking the blast using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, Schlegel and his team presented their paper at 227th meeting of the American Astronomical Society meeting in Kissimmee, Fla. earlier this month.

Dr. Eric Schlegel
Dr. Eric Schlegel

Conferences like these involve a lot of research presented on volunteer basis, so everyone gets only five minutes. It’s difficult to present complicated preliminary research or minutia in that time, so Schlegel usually doesn’t submit a proposal unless he has something that can almost speak for itself.

“I typically don’t do things like this unless I’ve got some pretty impressive result,” said Schlegel.

This time he had just that. X-ray and optical imaging showed evidence of a massive eruption from a black hole that could alter its galaxy composition, including but not limited to, the creation of new stars.

Sometime in the last 25-100 million years, which isn’t terribly long on the galactic timeline, two galaxies collided. One of those galaxies, the famous Whirlpool Galaxy, has long been the subject of research and inquiry. This time it was the smaller colliding galaxy, NGC 5195 that stole the show.

“We sort of stumbled upon this thing,” said Schlegel.

The galaxy is officially named Messier 51 (M51) or NGC 5194, but often goes by its nickname of the “Whirlpool Galaxy.” Like the Milky Way, the Whirlpool is a spiral galaxy with spectacular arms of stars and dust.  Image via NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory.
The galaxy is officially named Messier 51 (M51) or NGC 5194, but often goes by its nickname of the “Whirlpool Galaxy.” Like the Milky Way, the Whirlpool is a spiral galaxy with spectacular arms of stars and dust. Image via NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.

He was following up on archived research into activity in the Whirlpool Galaxy, when his co-author pointed out unusual data coming out of NGC 5195. Two arcs had formed indicating the possibility of matter being spewed out into space.

At the heart of NGC 5195 sits a supermassive black hole. Any researcher would expect to see the typical destructive or consuming behavior happening around the black hole, but in this case Schlegel and his team observed evidence of what seems to be the opposite. They call it a “burp,” and it’s a potentially creative process.

To investigate the possibility of a “burp” further, the team had to write a series of proposals to access telescopes and satellite imaging from some of the world’s most powerful telescopes, including Chandra. With their precious telescope time they narrowed their visual spectrum to show the presence of hydrogen.

The optical imaging showed a narrow band of hydrogen just outside the x-ray arc. This was further evidence that shockwaves were driving mass away from the black hole, collecting it in bands as it traveled. Astrophysicists call this “snowplowing.”

“We think these arcs represent artifacts from two enormous gusts when the black hole expelled material outward into the galaxy,” said co-author Christine Jones, astrophysicist and lecturer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “We think this activity has had a big effect on the galactic landscape.”

In astrophysics its rare to get a textbook image like the one Schlegel was seeing in his data. He took a step back from it, afraid he was somehow interpreting the data incorrectly. However, when the team came back to it, they confirmed that this was a textbook snowplow of hydrogen.

This data alone was enough to spark the interest of major media outlets. National Public Radio referred to the “burp” as one of two major surprises of the conference. The BBC honed in on Schlegel’s presentation at the conference as well.

His discovery and the resulting scientific recognition are a major asset for a university trying to establish itself as a Tier-One research institution.

“The UTSA Physics & Astronomy department is making major insights into the dynamics of the universe and our place in it. This is innovative research that helps UTSA become recognized as a top-tier research institution. We’re proud to support this type of academic endeavor,” said George Perry, dean of the UTSA College of Sciences.

However, for Schlegel, this is just be beginning of the mystery.

“The real question is, what has the gas been doing all that time?” said Schlegel.

He compares space research to a series of snapshots. One snapshot can tell you something about the processes at work, but not the whole story. He estimates that what we know now only covers about 10% of what has taken place in the story of the collision and the “burp.” He wants to know more.

To do this, he will have to apply for more time with the telescopes and imaging technology, a 12-18 month process. With each application the team can isolate another portion of the spectrum, like he did with hydrogen. Each piece will tell them more about what is moving, how fast, and in what direction, as well as the potential effect the matter might have on it’s galaxy.

“This will probably occupy a significant portion of my research for the next three or so years,” said Schlegel. 

*Top image: Dr. Eric Schlegel’s x-ray and optical analysis  of NGC 5195.

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.