As the US prepares for 4th of July fireworks here on Earth, a nearby spiral galaxy similar to our Milky Way is putting on a pyrotechnics display of its own. The galaxy, NGC 4258 (also known as Messier 106 or M 106), is ejecting gas and high-energy particles in a spectacular display of power that is rippling across the face of the galaxy with shock waves of stellar energy.
In a composite image constructed from observations by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes, radio data from Karl Jansky Very Large Array and images captured by the European Space Agency’s Herschel telescope, NGC 4258 can be seen venting enormous amounts of matter and energy from the super-massive black hole at its center.
Though technically a spiral galaxy, NGC 4258 departs in similarity from our own Milky Way because it also has two extra spiral arms that glimmer in X-ray, optical, and radio light. These features intersect the plane of the galaxy and are a clear indication of the turmoil taking place at the center of NGC 4528.
Located approximately 23 million light-years from Earth – and visible with binoculars in the constellation Canes Venatici – NGC 4528 is producing powerful jets of high-energy particles that strike the face of the galaxy and create shock waves. As these shock waves strike the vented hydrogen gas they impart much of their energy, causing the gas to increase in temperature by many thousands of degrees.
In fact, according to the scientists studying this phenomenon, the Chandra X-ray Observatory has revealed huge bubbles of hot gas above and below the plane of the galaxy that have been heated to millions of degrees by the jets of energy emanating from the black hole.
Researchers claim that this ejection is occurring at a very rapid rate. So fast that they predict that all of the remaining gas will be ejected within the next 300 million years, which, cosmically speaking, is a very short amount of time. As a result of this rapid ejection, less gas is available for fresh stars to form and researchers using the Spitzer telescope data estimate that the rate which stars are being produced is in the order of ten times less than in our own Milky Way.
"Jets from the super-massive black hole at the center of M 106 are having a profound influence on the available gas for making stars in this galaxy," said Patrick Ogle, an astrophysicist at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "This process may eventually transform the spiral galaxy M 106 into a lenticular galaxy, depriving it of the raw material to form stars."
With NGC 4258 being comparatively close to our Milky Way, astronomers have been afforded the opportunity to study this black hole and learn more about the life-cycles of galaxies. In this case, with the array of space and Earth-based instruments available to them, the researchers will be able to observe the spectacular destructive forces of the super-massive black hole in the center of that galaxy.