Washington: Astronomers have reported seeing huge clouds of gas orbiting supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies.
Once thought to be a relatively uniform, fog-like ring, the accreting matter instead forms clumps dense enough to intermittently dim the intense radiation blazing forth as these enormous objects condense and consume matter.
Evidence for the clouds comes from records collected over 16 years by NASA `s Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer, a satellite in low-Earth orbit equipped with instruments that measured variations in X-ray sources. Those sources include active galactic nuclei, brilliantly luminous objects powered by supermassive black holes as they gather and condense huge quantities of dust and gas.
By sifting through records for 55 active galactic nuclei Alex Markowitz, an astrophysicist at the University of California, San Diego and the Karl Remeis Observatory in Bamberg, Germany and colleagues found a dozen instances when the X-ray signal dimmed for periods of time ranging from hours to years, presumably when a cloud of dense gas passed between the source and satellite.
The findings are set to be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.