Artist's concept of a supermassive black hole Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Super Awesome, Supermassive Black Hole

Western University’s Professor Sarah Gallagher focuses on the super amazing science of black holes.

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If you ask Sarah Gallagher what every big galaxy has in common, she will tell you that each one has a supermassive black hole at its centre.

Gallagher, professor of physics and astronomy at Western University, studies the winds from these black holes, which can be a million to a billion times more massive than our sun. And if you ask any child you know, they are certain to agree that this is awesome.

Listening to Gallagher describe supermassive black holes, it’s hard not to agree that they are amazing.

“When these black holes are growing, they grow because gas is funneling around, in this sort of whirlpool, and falling into the black hole. The light that is generated in the gas falling into the black hole is so amazingly bright that it can outshine the trillions of stars in the host galaxy by a thousand times,” says Gallagher.

“That incredible power that comes out in light is actually so strong that it can blow gas out into the galaxy at speeds of up to thousands of kilometres per second.”

One of the secrets to discoveries in astronomy is the way in which the scientific community shares data. The Hubble Space Telescope is just one example that is joined by many others, including the Spitzer Space Telescope and the Chandra X-ray Observatory, covering every wavelength of light, and reporting back data from space that can’t be seen from the ground.

All of the images captured by these telescopes are archived and publicly available within a year for any scientist to study.

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Professor Sarah Gallagher is an Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Western Ontario. Her research focusses on investigating the nature of winds from luminous quasars (accreting supermassive black holes at the centres of distant galaxies) using space and ground-based telescopes. In 2010, she was awarded an Ontario Early Researcher Award for her work. Before coming to Western, she was a research astronomer at the University of California, Los Angeles and a postdoctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She received her PhD in Astronomy and Astrophysics from Penn State (2002), and her BA in Physics from Yale University (1995).