“These black holes are relatively close to the Milky Way, but they have remained hidden from us until now,” said Ady Annuar, a graduate student at Durham University in the United Kingdom, who presented the results at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Grapevine, Texas. “They’re like monsters hiding under your bed.”
Both of these black holes are the central engines of what astronomers call “active galactic nuclei,” a class of extremely bright objects that includes quasars and blazars. Depending on how these galactic nuclei are oriented and what sort of material surrounds them, they appear very different when examined with telescopes.
“Just as we can’t see the sun on a cloudy day, we can’t directly see how bright these active galactic nuclei really are because of all of the gas and dust surrounding the central engine,” said Peter Boorman, a graduate student at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom.
Boorman led the study of an active galaxy called IC 3639, which is 170 million light years away. Researchers analyzed NuSTAR data from this object and compared them with previous observations from NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory and the Japan-led Suzaku satellite. The findings from NuSTAR, which is more sensitive to higher energy X-rays than these observatories, confirm the nature of IC 3639 as an active galactic nucleus. NuSTAR also provided the first precise measurement of how much material is obscuring the central engine of IC 3639, allowing researchers to determine how luminous this hidden monster really is.
More surprising is the spiral galaxy that Annuar focused on: NGC 1448. The black hole in its center was only discovered in 2009, even though it is at the center of one of the nearest large galaxies to our Milky Way. By “near,” astronomers mean NGC 1448 is only 38 million light years away (one light year is about 6 trillion miles).
Annuar’s study discovered that this galaxy also has a thick column of gas hiding the central black hole, which could be part of a doughnut-shaped region. X-ray emission from NGC 1448, as seen by NuSTAR and Chandra, suggests for the first time that, as with IC 3639, there must be a thick layer of gas and dust hiding the active black hole in this galaxy from our line of sight.
This galaxy, called IC 3639, also contains an example of an obscured supermassive black hole.
“It is exciting to use the power of NuSTAR to get important, unique information on these beasts, even in our cosmic backyard where they can be studied in detail,” said Daniel Stern, NuSTAR project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.
NuSTAR is a Small Explorer mission led by Caltech and managed by JPL for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. NuSTAR was developed in partnership with the Danish Technical University and the Italian Space Agency (ASI). The spacecraft was built by Orbital Sciences Corp., Dulles, Virginia. NuSTAR’s mission operations center is at UC Berkeley, and the official data archive is at NASA’s High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center. ASI provides the mission’s ground station and a mirror archive. JPL is managed by Caltech for NASA.