The European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope Interferometer (ESO’s VLTI) has observed a cloud of cosmic dust at the centre of the galaxy Messier 77 that is hiding a supermassive black hole. The findings have confirmed predictions made around 30 years ago and are giving astronomers new insight into “active galactic nuclei”, some of the brightest and most enigmatic objects in the universe.
Active galactic nuclei (AGNs) are extremely energetic sources powered by supermassive black holes and found at the centre of some galaxies. These black holes feed on large volumes of cosmic dust and gas. Before it is eaten up, this material spirals towards the black hole and huge amounts of energy are released in the process, often outshining all the stars in the galaxy.
Astronomers have been curious about AGNs ever since they first spotted these bright objects in the 1950s. Now, thanks to ESO’s VLTI, a team of researchers, led by Violeta Gámez Rosas from Leiden University in the Netherlands, have taken a key step towards understanding how they work and what they look like up close.
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