The Sculptor galaxy is seen in a new light, in this composite image from NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) and the European Southern Observatory in Chile. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/JHU) Enlarge

June 11, 2013 — Nearly a decade ago, NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory caught signs of what appeared to be a black hole snacking on gas at the middle of the nearby Sculptor galaxy. Now, NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR), which sees higher-energy X-ray light, has taken a peek and found the black hole asleep.

"Our results imply that the black hole went dormant in the past 10 years," said Bret Lehmer of the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. "Periodic observations with both Chandra and NuSTAR should tell us unambiguously if the black hole wakes up again. If this happens in the next few years, we hope to be watching." Lehmer is lead author of a new study detailing the findings in the Astrophysical Journal.

The slumbering black hole is about 5 million times the mass of our sun. It lies at the center of the Sculptor galaxy, also known as NGC 253, a so-called starburst galaxy actively giving birth to new stars. At 13 million light-years away, this is one of the closest starbursts to our own galaxy, the Milky Way.

The Milky Way is all around more quiet than the Sculptor galaxy. It makes far fewer new stars, and its behemoth black hole, about 4 million times the mass of our sun, is also snoozing.

"Black holes feed off surrounding accretion disks of material. When they run out of this fuel, they go dormant," said co-author Ann Hornschemeier of Goddard. "NGC 253 is somewhat unusual because the giant black hole is asleep in the midst of tremendous star-forming activity all around it."

The findings are teaching astronomers how galaxies grow over time. Nearly all galaxies are suspected to harbor supermassive black holes at their hearts. In the most massive of these, the black holes are thought to grow at the same rate that new stars form, until blasting radiation from the black holes ultimately shuts down star formation. In the case of the Sculptor galaxy, astronomers do not know if star formation is winding down or ramping up.

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