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Galactic Super-volcano in Action

For Release: August 18, 2010


Credit: X-ray (NASA/CXC/KIPAC/N. Werner, E. Million et al); Radio (NRAO/AUI/NSF/F. Owen)
Press Image and Caption

A galactic "super-volcano" in the massive galaxy M87 is erupting and blasting gas outwards, as witnessed by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and NSF's Very Large Array. The cosmic volcano is being driven by a giant black hole in the galaxy's center and preventing hundreds of millions of new stars from forming.

Astronomers studying this black hole and its effects have been struck by the remarkable similarities between it and a volcano in Iceland that made headlines earlier this year.

At a distance of about 50 million light years, M87 is relatively close to Earth and lies at the center of the Virgo cluster, which contains thousands of galaxies. M87's location, coupled with long observations over Chandra's lifetime, has made it an excellent subject for investigations of how a massive black hole impacts its environment.

"Our results show in great detail that supermassive black holes have a surprisingly good control over the evolution of the galaxies in which they live," said Norbert Werner of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at Stanford University and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, who led one of two papers describing the study. "And it doesn't stop there. The black hole's reach extends ever farther into the entire cluster, similar to how one small volcano can affect practically an entire hemisphere on Earth."

The cluster surrounding M87 is filled with hot gas glowing in X-ray light, which is detected by Chandra. As this gas cools, it can fall toward the galaxy's center where it should continue to cool even faster and form new stars.

However, radio observations with the Very Large Array suggest that in M87 jets of very energetic particles produced by the black hole interrupt this process. These jets lift up the relatively cool gas near the center of the galaxy and produce shock waves in the galaxy's atmosphere because of their supersonic speed.

The scientists involved in this research have found the interaction of this cosmic "eruption" with the galaxy's environment to be very similar to that of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano, which forced much of Europe to close its airports earlier this year.

With Eyjafjallajokull, pockets of hot gas blasted through the surface of the lava, generating shock waves that can be seen passing through the grey smoke of the volcano. The hot gas then rises up in the atmosphere, dragging the dark ash with it. This process can be seen in a movie of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano where the shock waves propagating in the smoke are followed by the rise of dark ash clouds into the atmosphere.

In the analogy with Eyjafjallajokull, the energetic particles produced in the vicinity of the black hole rise through the X-ray emitting atmosphere of the cluster, lifting up the coolest gas near the center of M87 in their wake, much like the hot volcanic gases drag up the clouds of dark ash. And just like the volcano here on Earth, shockwaves can be seen when the black hole pumps energetic particles into the cluster gas.

"This analogy shows that even though astronomical phenomena can occur in exotic settings and over vast scales, the physics can be very similar to events on Earth," said co-author Aurora Simionescu also of the Kavli Institute.

In M87, the plumes of cooler gas being lifted upwards contain as much mass as all of the gas contained within 12,000 light years of the center of the galaxy cluster. This shows the black hole-powered volcano is very efficient at blasting the galaxy free of the gas that would otherwise cool and form stars.

"This gas could have formed hundreds of millions of stars if the black hole had not removed it from the center of the galaxy. That seems like a much worse disruption than what the airline companies on Earth had to put up with earlier this year," said Evan Million, a graduate student at Stanford University and lead-author of the other paper to be published about this deep study of M87.

The eruption in M87 that lifted up the cooler gas must have occurred about 150 million years earlier, but a smaller eruption only about 11 million years earlier produced the shock wave. The Chandra image was based on an observation lasting almost 7 days. X-ray data from ESA's XMM-Newton was also used in this study.

The two papers describing these results will appear in the journal of the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages the Chandra program for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The SmithsonianAstrophysical Observatory controls Chandra's science and flight operations from Cambridge, Mass.

More information, including images and other multimedia, can be found at: and

Media contacts:
Janet Anderson
NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, Ala.

Megan Watzke
Chandra X-ray Center, Cambridge, Mass.

Visitor Comments (24)

So wonderful.

Posted by Alice x on Friday, 02.7.14 @ 03:43am

This is very import.

Posted by mario antonio on Wednesday, 11.16.11 @ 09:45am

Thanks for your comment. In M87 we cannot see the horizon of the black hole and in fact this has never been observed in any black hole. Because of its relative proximity we can see the *effects* of M87's black hole in more detail than usual. The results for M87 are interesting, but I wouldn't call them abnormal.
P.Edmonds, CXC

Posted by P. Edmonds on Tuesday, 08.31.10 @ 09:12am

Dear Prithvi,
Thanks, you are right that the jets are moving at relativistic speeds, but these are also supersonic speeds. It's not obvious, but it's interesting that the speed of sound in the hot gas in galaxy clusters is hundreds of miles per second, so it's much higher than the speed of sound in the Earth's atmosphere.
P.Edmonds, CXC

Posted by P. Edmonds on Tuesday, 08.31.10 @ 09:10am

Dear J. Johnson,
Astronomers use both "hot gas" and "plasma" to describe the hot atmospheres in galaxy clusters and other objects, so we have adopted the less technical term. In discussing the analogy, we describe several similarities between the eruption in M87 and the one in Iceland. Obviously the amounts of energy and the physical size are very different, but that only makes the analogy more interesting. Finally, the observational evidence for black holes is considered to be strong by most astronomers, even if it's not yet watertight.
P.Edmonds, CXC

Posted by P. Edmonds on Tuesday, 08.31.10 @ 09:08am

Dear rav,
This is an interesting idea, but a lot of evidence supports the idea that M87 contains a supermassive black hole at its center, just like many other galaxies including our own. Note that material can escape from a black hole as long as it is outside the event horizon. Also, jets have been seen around many different types of object that have material falling onto them, including stellar-mass black holes, neutron stars, white dwarfs and young, solar-type stars.
P.Edmonds, CXC

Posted by P. Edmonds on Tuesday, 08.31.10 @ 09:05am

Wow. Great analysis. I am fairly new at this subject. Found your term "galactic atmosphere" quite appropriate. Never thought of it as an "atmosphere" before.

Posted by Andrew on Saturday, 08.28.10 @ 11:14am

It is really a superb information. Cheers NASA, you have really done a great job. Thanks for taking us so close to the real nature.

Posted by DexterRidlon on Thursday, 08.26.10 @ 00:57am

The mysteries of the universe continue. Great photo's of M87. Black holes are one of the most interesting phenomena of outer space. It will take years before they are truly understood. The next generation of space telescopes will give us even better clarity of these distant wonders.

Posted by marv brilliant on Tuesday, 08.24.10 @ 06:33am

Could the volcanic activity here on earth in Iceland be directly related to that activity in galaxy M87? I personally have found numerous similarities between galactic formations and earth geometries, coastlines, continents, faults... etc

According to Newton's physics, every particle in the universe has an effect on every other particle in the universe. Why would larger systems not act in a similar manner? Can gravity really be restricted to the speed of light, given its ability to influence the very path that photons travel?

Posted by Joseph W Rowan on Tuesday, 08.24.10 @ 02:17am

Black holes draw in matter. Could this possibly be the other end, where it spits out the matter, such as a wormhole?

Posted by rav on Monday, 08.23.10 @ 08:47am

Congratulations to whoever was responsible. Very good comparison to aid in understanding events and the image. I was half expecting something specious, but their are sound likenesses in appearance and underlying activity. Well done.

Posted by Brian Armour on Friday, 08.20.10 @ 20:52pm

One of the best informative images yet.

Posted by Ted on Friday, 08.20.10 @ 20:10pm

That's an old picture. But, sorry, the world doesn't revolve around any one person.


Posted by Bill Ray on Friday, 08.20.10 @ 17:39pm

This is an active galaxy. Its "hot gas" is plasma. Its energetic particles, constitute plasma. Everything in the image is plasma emitting electromagnetic energy from radio to X-rays. To use, a volcano is a disturbing miss-use of analogy at the energy levels of galactic events. It would be more informative to note that a black hole is still a highly theoretical construct, and has never been observed. The composite color image of NGC 4486 is exquisite. Good job there guys.

Posted by J. Johnson on Friday, 08.20.10 @ 12:10pm

I think all this information coming from these observatories like the Chandra x-ray observatory and Hubble are very interesting.

Posted by thomas on Friday, 08.20.10 @ 11:19am

Great image - congratulations.

Posted by Robert D Goncalves on Friday, 08.20.10 @ 08:55am


Posted by Haposan MP on Friday, 08.20.10 @ 08:37am

Most of the pictures are terrific. I wish you insert an icon for each of these pictures to be forwarded to friends and those who interested in this.

Posted by P B SARPESHKAR on Friday, 08.20.10 @ 08:12am

It is a very good analogy, to explain the process involved.

Posted by Mark Ballington on Friday, 08.20.10 @ 07:37am

Great, awesome and I love it 10/10.

Posted by John Potgieter on Friday, 08.20.10 @ 01:38am

These jets lift up the relatively cool gas near the center of the galaxy and produce shock waves in the galaxy's atmosphere because of their supersonic speed.
I thought these jets were moving at relativistic speeds and not supersonic speeds. I am in fact sure that at one time there was even a big debate going on about the apparent superluminal nature of these jets, which has since been disproved.

Posted by Prithvi on Thursday, 08.19.10 @ 21:20pm

Wow... what else can you say? wow.

Posted by j. lackey on Thursday, 08.19.10 @ 20:45pm

About M87, in this photo we can see the horizon of the massive black hole, but what is not normal is the form of the base a tornade form and the sense of x-rays they are aspirated instead of ex-pulsed, in center many star exployed, I think two or three star in same time, we had to review our models or a new type of black hole like a worm.

Posted by PECQUERY on Thursday, 08.19.10 @ 17:19pm