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WHY are supermassive black holes so, well, supermassive? It has long been a mystery how enough matter can reach these cosmic gluttons to swell them to such large sizes. Now it seems the answer could be connected to a starry disc at the heart of the Andromeda galaxy. Although they may be hard to see, such discs may be common!
Their simulations show that when there is enough gas present to prompt significant amounts of star formation, the newly formed stars orbiting a black hole naturally align to create an elliptical disc that can stretch out dozens of light years from the centre of the galaxy. This oval structure tugs unevenly on incoming gas, causing different streams to collide. The gas loses momentum and eventually gets close enough to the black hole to be swallowed up. In this way, black holes could consume as much as 10 solar masses of gas each year, Hopkins says. That's enough to feed galactic black holes at the peak of their gluttony, some 10 billion years ago
One test will be to see whether other galaxies have this stellar feature. "[Andromeda] is not unique. What we see there is likely to be commonplace," says Tod Lauer of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson, Arizona, who has identified several such galaxies.