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Have black holes been turning up the volume on the cosmic radio background?

Last Updated on Thursday, 15 April 2010 19:43
Published on Thursday, 15 April 2010 19:41
radio_jet.jpgAstronomers investigating why the cosmic background radiation is much brighter at radio wavelengths than expected have identified a potential culprit: fast spinning black holes early in the galaxy formation process. The results will be presented by Professor Andy Lawrence at the RAS National Astronomy Meeting in Glasgow on Wednesday 14th April.

Last July, US astronomers announced surprising results from a high-altitude balloon experiment called ARCADE-2, which had made careful measurements of the sky at radio wavelengths. The background radio emission, which is the component smoothly distributed across the whole sky, was several times brighter than anyone was expecting.
Now a team of astronomers from California and Scotland, including Jack Singal, Lukasz Stawarz, and Vahe Petrosian of Stanford University, and Andy Lawrence of the University of Edinburgh, believe that they have an explanation for this surprise.

"We looked at many different ways this could happen – a cosmic sea of relativistic particles, giant diffuse radio sources, distant exploding stars – and found them all to fail various tests. We then noticed that we could explain the emissions by adding up the very faint emission from every ordinary galaxy in the observable universe. This was a surprising result, because it implied that weak emission from a large population of ordinary, but distant, sources added up to more than the emission from rarer but more luminous sources, whereas we were expecting the opposite," said Professor Lawrence, of the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh.

The background appears to be the sum of radio emissions from all ordinary galaxies, both nearby and distant, but because there are so many more distant ones, these are the ones that dominate. It would add up to an infinite amount were it not for the fact that the Universe is expanding and has a finite age.

Having found one solution, the team faced another difficult problem. In the local universe, most radio emission is associated with supernova remnants in regions of star formation. The radio emission seems to be tightly linked with the infrared emission which star formation regions also produce. The infrared sky background should, therefore, match the radio background. However measurements of the infrared background predict a radio background between three and ten times less than ARCADE-2's observations.

"Somehow, in the distant universe, the tight connection we see locally between radio and infrared emission gets broken. Distant galaxies early in the history of the universe must produce extra radio emission. This may be because the process of star formation works differently in the early universe.  However, we believe that there could be an early epoch of radio jet emission from fast-spinning black holes at the centre of many ordinary galaxies, which then fades away," said Professor Lawrence.

Astronomers believe that every galaxy probably contains a massive black hole.  Fast-spinning black holes can give out energy in the form of radio jets.

"A possibility is that as these black holes were forming, they were usually spinning fast but over time, as accreted material tries to spin the black hole in many different directions, they ended up with no net spin on average and the source of the radio emission disappeared,” said Professor Lawrence.

CONTACTS
Andy Lawrence
Regius Professor of Astronomy, University of Edinburgh
Institute for Astronomy
Royal Observatory
Blackford Hill
Edinburgh, EH9 3HJ
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Tel: +44-(0)131-668-8346
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Professor Lawrence can be contacted through the NAM Press Office on Wednesday-Friday (April 14-16th).

NAM 2010 Press Office (12th – 16th April only)
Room G358
Gilmorehill Building
University of Glasgow.
Tel: +44 (0)141 330 7409, +44 (0)141 330 7410, +44 (0)141 330 7411

Anita Heward
Press Officer
Royal Astronomical Society
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Dr Robert Massey
Press and Policy Officer
Royal Astronomical Society
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IMAGES

The Hubble Deep Field, a very deep sky image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, shows large numbers of very faint distant galaxies, seen in ordinary starlight. The new radio data seem to suggest that every one of these distant galaxies is also a faint radio source. Credit: NASA, ESA, S. Beckwith (STScI) and the HUDF Team
http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2004/07/image/a/


Some nearby galaxies show high velocity jets which are believed to be emerging from a spinning black hole at the centre of the galaxy. This example is "active galaxy" M87, imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope. A possible explanation for the new results is that every galaxy has a fast spinning black hole, making jets which shine in radio emission. Credit: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)


FURTHER INFORMATION
A paper has been submitted to the Astrophysical Journal by Dr Jack Singal, Dr Lukasz Stawarsz and Professor Vahe Petrosian of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (KIPAC), Stanford University, USA and Professor Andy Lawrence of the Institute for Astronomy, University of Edinburgh, Scotland.

NOTES FOR EDITORS

THE RAS NATIONAL ASTRONOMY MEETING 2010
NAM2010 (www.astro.gla.ac.uk/nam2010/) is principally sponsored by the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and the University of Glasgow.

THE ROYAL ASTRONOMICAL SOCIETY
The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS: www.ras.org.uk), founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organises scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognises outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 3000 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.

THE UNIVERSITY OF GLASGOW
The University of Glasgow (founded 1451) is one of the world’s top 100 research universities with more than 70 per cent of its research rated as world-leading or internationally excellent. The Physics and Astronomy Department is one of the top four in the UK’s major research-intensive universities, the Russell Group.
The conference comes to Glasgow during the 250th anniversary year of the founding of the Regius Chair of Astronomy at the University of Glasgow, first held by astronomer and meteorologist Alexander Wilson in 1760. The present incumbent is Prof. John Brown, 10th Astronomer Royal for Scotland.