Key Takeaways

  • The Hitomi satellite captured a dramatic final image of a galaxy cluster before losing contact.
  • The image revealed a quiescent atmosphere in the cluster’s core, with fewer stars than expected.
  • The data showed that hot gases within the cluster were traveling at a slower speed than previously thought.
  • The findings suggest that a supermassive black hole is stirring the gases, preventing star formation.
  • Hitomi’s Soft X-ray Spectrometer (SXS) provided groundbreaking insights into gas velocities.

The Hitomi satellite, Japan’s black hole-hunting spacecraft, managed to capture a remarkable final image before going silent. The image was of a galaxy cluster located an astonishing 250 million light years away. The satellite’s X-ray device measured the activity of gases at the core of the Perseus cluster with unprecedented precision, surpassing previous instruments by up to 50 times.

A composite of a Chandra X-ray image of the core of the Perseus galaxy cluster – with Hitomi’s X-ray shot outlined in yellow ( Image: Hitomi Collaboration/JAXA, NASA, ESA, SRON, CSA)

Astronomers analyzing the data from Hitomi’s observation made an intriguing discovery. The cluster’s core exhibited a quiescent atmosphere, with fewer stars than anticipated. Furthermore, the hot gases between the galaxies within the cluster were found to be moving at a slower speed—340,000 mph—than previously estimated.

The published data, featured in Nature, unveils the continuous stirring of the gases by a supermassive black hole. This turbulent activity prevents the formation of new stars. The black hole exerts vigorous influence on the gas within the cluster of galaxies, effectively minimizing star formation.

The square overlay, which spans about 195,000 light years at the cluster’s distance, shows the area observed by the satellite ( Image: NASA Goddard and NASA/CXC/SAO/E. Bulbul, et al)

Brian McNamara, a physics and astronomy professor, commented on the findings, noting that the gas appeared relatively stable and less prone to disruption than expected. He also highlighted the significance of Hitomi’s observation in improving the accuracy of weighing distant galaxy clusters compared to our own Milky Way galaxy.

The Soft X-ray Spectrometer (SXS), a revolutionary instrument onboard Hitomi, was developed by scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. The SXS findings on gas velocities have generated particular interest among astrophysicists. The technology, pioneered by U.S. researchers in the 1980s, showcased its most successful space application to date during Hitomi’s brief mission.

Launched by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in February, Hitomi aimed to study black holes and investigate the behavior of matter as it interacts with these cosmic phenomena. Unfortunately, on March 27, JAXA lost contact with the satellite, abruptly ending its operational cycle. Nevertheless, Hitomi’s final image and the groundbreaking data it collected provide valuable insights into the dynamics of galaxy clusters and the role of supermassive black holes in shaping their environments.

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