MAR 02, 2015 10:03 AM PST

The Storm at the Center of a Teacup

Normally thought of as one of the more "boring" galaxies, J1430+1339, also known as the Tea Cup galaxy, is giving astronomers reason to re-think it's possibilities. Scientists were able to observe a massive storm brewing at its center, likely snuffing out any new stars. Researchers are hopeful that the observations from this transitioning galaxy will shed new light on how galaxies are formed and the changes that happen within them. Once a galaxy starts to show an increase in black hole activity as the Teacup has, it's an indication that star formation will soon cease.
Brightly colored gas clouds show storms at the center of the Teacup
"It appears that a supermassive black hole is explosively heating and blasting around the gas in this galaxy and, as a result, is transforming it from an actively star-forming galaxy into one devoid of gas that can no longer form stars," said lead-researcher Chris Harrison, of The Center for Extragalactic Astronomy at Durham University in the U.K. Harrison collaborated with astronomers from other parts of the U.K., the United States and Chile to document the changes in the Teacup. Using the National Science Foundation's famous Very Large Array (VLA) - a "Y"-shaped configuration of radio telescopes in New Mexico, the same ones that were featured in the movie "Contact" Harrison and his team studied the short and stout galaxy and have published their findings in the Astrophysical Journal.

The Teacup has been identified as possessing an active supermassive black hole in its core, consuming any material that falls too close, but scientists also believe the galaxy is on its way to transitioning to one where no new stars form. While it was originally spiral in shape, it now has the appearance of a giant elliptical galaxy; a sign that star formation may be coming to an end. Researchers are excited to observe galaxies that appear to be shifting and changing because their activity during this time is key to understanding black hole processes and star formation

The impact of the supermassive black hole in the core of the Teacup is crystal clear to researchers. Giant radio bright bubbles expanding up to 40,000 light-years are sticking out from the galaxy's core with smaller-scale jets of plasma accelerating material to around 1,000 kilometers per second (2.2 million miles per hour). This much high-speed activity and radioactive action is very rare. The VLA radio telescopes have been the key to visualizing and documenting this change.

"These radio observations have revealed that the central black hole is whipping up a storm at the center of this galaxy, by launching powerful jets that are accelerating the gas in the host galaxy and are colliding with the gas on larger scales," said co-investigator Alasdair Thomson, also from Durham. "This is the same kind of powerful process we'd previously seen in rare, extremely radio-luminous galaxies. The incredible capabilities of the VLA have allowed us to discover that these processes can occur in the more-common, radio-faint galaxies, as long as you look hard enough."

"This ‘storm' in the ‘Teacup' means that the jet-driven process in which a black hole is removing or destroying star-forming material may be much more typical than we knew before, and could be a crucial piece in the puzzle of understanding how the galaxies we see around us were formed," said Harrison.
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