The fastest winds at ultraviolet wavelengths have been detected near a supermassive black hole (SMBH) by a research team lead by York University’s astrophysicists. The study published on March 18 in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society states that these winds are as fast as 20 percent the speed of light.

“We’re talking wind speeds of 20 percent the speed of light, which is more than 200 million kilometres an hour. That’s equivalent to a category 77 hurricane,” adds lead researcher Jesse Rogerson. “And we have reason to believe that there are quasar winds that are even faster.”

“Black holes can have a mass that is billions of times larger than the sun, mostly because they are messy eaters in a way, capturing any material that ventures too close,” explains Patrick Hall, a York University associate professor and Rogerson’s supervisor. “But as matter spirals toward a black hole, some of it is blown away by the heat and light of the quasar. These are the winds that we are detecting.”

Artist's illustration of turbulent winds of gas swirling around a black hole. Some of the gas is spiraling inward, but some is being blown away. Photo credit: NASA, and M. Weiss (Chandra X -ray Center)

Artist’s illustration of turbulent winds of gas swirling around a black hole. Some of the gas are spiraling inward, but some are being blown away. Photo credit: NASA and M. Weiss (Chandra X-Ray Center)

To determine new outflows from quasars which are hot gas discs that form around SBMH at the centre of enormous galaxies, the researchers analysed data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, a large survey of the sky. With the help of the Gemini Observatory’s twin telescopes in Hawaii and Chile, they spotted 300 quasars but only studied further the 100 examples.

The researchers also found a new wind in the same quasar moving at 140 million kilometres an hour. Studies about this new quasar are still ongoing. Moreover, this study goes beyond recording the fastest quasar winds. This also hopes to gather more insights about quasars.

“Quasar winds play an important role in galaxy formation,” concludes Rogerson. “When galaxies form, these winds fling material outwards and deter the creation of stars. If such winds didn’t exist or were less powerful, we would see far more stars in big galaxies than we actually do.”