Supermassive black hole found hidden in dust cloud

A supermassive black hole was found hiding within a cloud of cosmic dust at the center of the Messier 77 galaxy, confirming 30-year-old theories of its existence.

This discovery was made by a research team led by Violeta Gamez Rosas from Leiden University in the Netherlands and was published in the peer-reviewed Nature journal.

At the center of some galaxies, strong energy sources called active galactic nuclei (AGN) can be found that are powered by supermassive black holes which feed on large amounts of cosmic dust and gas.

There are different types of AGNs. Some release bursts of radio waves, some shine brightly and some, like the Messier 77 AGN, are more subdued. 

Some 50 years ago, astronomers formulated a theory that the common factor between all AGNs is that they are powered by supermassive black holes. This theory is known as the Unified Model theory.

If the AGN obscures the black hole from the viewpoint of Earth, then the black hole will be entirely hidden, as is the case with Messier 77.

While astronomers have found partial evidence in the past to help substantiate the theory, doubt remained whether an AGN could indeed fully conceal a black hole.

The research team's observations were made on the Multi Aperture Mid-Infrared Spectroscopic Experiment (MATISSE), which is located in Chile's Atacama Desert.

"MATISSE can see a broad range of infrared wavelengths, which lets us see through the dust and accurately measure temperatures," said study co-author Prof. Walter Jaffe from Leiden University.

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