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Which Galaxy Mimics a Beating Heart?

When I first started out in college, I was a Pre-Med major. I loved anatomy and still do. I took an amazing course in high school and it has been one of my academic loves ever since. My favorite part of human anatomy, though, is the heart. It’s a beautiful organ, that works like a circuit, always going along the same tracks, same paths, and the same directions.

The thing I love most about the heart is that it is very reliable and consistent. And when something goes wrong, the heart will correct itself the best that it can. Because it is so regular so much of the time, it’s easy to understand what is going wrong. With the NGC 4696 Galaxy, which is within the Centaurus Galaxy Cluster, this is not the case.

According to NASA.gov, there is a black hole at the center of NGC 4696, located around 145 million light years from Earth. While the black hole is undetected, “astronomers are learning about the impact it has on the galaxy it inhabits and the larger cluster around it.”

With a human heart, if something goes awry inside the heart, it affects the entire body. This is the same with a galaxy. If something goes wrong, the material and energy it pumps affects its host galaxy and the things around it.

Using the Chandra X-ray Observatory, and other telescopes, scientists have found evidence of repeated bursts of energetic particles generated by the black hole in NGC 4696. These bursts act like the beating of a heart.

While the average human adult’s heartbeat is between 60 and 100 beats per minute, researchers estimate that these black hole bursts (“beats”) have occurred every five to ten million years. As I mentioned earlier, human hearts are regular, as are their heartbeats. NGC 4696’s black hole does not have regular beats.

These beats send out material in irregular intervals to interact with the intracluster medium (a cloud of diffuse hot gas) around the galaxy. This creates shockwaves and ventricle-like cavities in the space between galaxies in the Centaurus cluster.

Researchers have found 9 cavities in the gas around NGC 4696. Researchers have also identified elements present in the gas, finding that “rich in heavier elements generated by supernovae in the galaxy has been ‘lifted up’ by the black hole’s outbursts, pushed ever outward from its origin in the cluster’s center to enrich the space farther away. Because the gas is heated and kept hot by the black hole’s intermittent pulses, it never has the chance to cool and form stars” according to astronomy.com.

A paper describing these results was published March 21, 2016 on the Royal Astronomical Society website here .

Image courtesy of  NASA


Written by Staff Writer Dusty Langdon

Dusty is a community college student who lives in Peoria, Il. She is a NASA Community College Aerospace Scholar (NCAS), and has always loved space, math, and learning new languages. When not writing for our blog, Dusty spends her time writing stories, reading, watching television, and hanging out with friends.

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