Science & Tech

A pancake, not a doughnut, shapes distant galactic center

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Disc of gas and dust shapes galaxy’s nucleus

Astronomer Lincoln Greenhill (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) and colleagues have found direct evidence for a “pancake” of gas and dust at the center of Circinus — a thin, warped disk surrounding the galaxy’s central, supermassive black hole. That disk shapes the galaxy’s nucleus. It shadows different regions from the “glare” of the black hole, a glare created by the glow of accreting gas. And when some of this material is blown away from the black hole, as by radiation, the disk channels it, leaving shadowed regions in relative peace. This idea stands in contrast to the prevailing wisdom that shadows and outflows are caused by vast, thick “doughnuts” of dust and gas. “We caught the Circinus galaxy and its black hole red-handed,” said Greenhill. “Most astronomers think that the center of an active galaxy has an outflow directed and channeled by a doughnut-shaped torus of dust and gas. Our detailed radio images show that the culprit is a warped disk. And if that’s true for the Circinus galaxy, then the same may be true for other active galaxies.”