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Black holes
Key events in the history of Centaurus A

1847: Sir John Herschel was the first to report observations of the galaxy we now know as NGC 5128, or Centaurus A. In his "Outlines of Astronomy," published in 1849, Herschel described it as "two semi-ovals of elliptically formed nebula appearing to be cut asunder and separated by a broad obscure band parallel to the large axis of the nebula, in the midst of which a faint streak of light parallel to the sides of the cut appears."

1848–1949: Despite Herschel's observation, astronomers paid little attention to Centaurus A for about 100 years because they considered it another one of those nebulous, fuzzy objects originally thought to be within our own galaxy. Even Edwin Hubble called it a nebulous object. Later astronomers with more powerful telescopes identified many of these objects as galaxies. Centaurus A also was largely ignored because of the lack of large optical telescopes in the southern hemisphere, where this galaxy can be seen.

Centaurus A

Dark lanes of dust encircle the heart of galaxy Centaurus A.

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1949: Astronomers had just developed another technique to study celestial objects besides visible light: special instruments to collect radio waves. Using an 80-foot radio antenna at Dover Heights, Australia and radio waves reflected off the nearby sea, astronomers John Bolton, G. Stanley, and Bruce Slee were the first to identify Centaurus A as a powerful radio galaxy. Radio waves from Centaurus A were among the first to be linked to an extragalactic object.

1954: Studying Centaurus A with telescopes at Palomar Observatory in California, Walter Baade and Rudolph Minkowski confirmed that it is a galaxy. The pair also proposed that the peculiar structure of Centaurus A — with a bar of dark dust bisecting the galaxy — is the result of a merger between two galaxies: a giant elliptical and a small spiral.

1969–1971: Stuart Bowyer, using a sounding rocket, detected X-rays emanating from Centaurus A. In late 1970, the UHURU satellite confirmed that the X-rays were indeed associated with the galaxy. In 1971, Bill Kunkel and Hale Bradt used a telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Chile to observe infrared light originating from a compact source in the galaxy's core. X-ray observations in the early 1970s with the Astronomical Netherlands Satellite (ANS) and the Orbiting Solar Observatory (OSO-7) showed changes in the intensity of X-ray emissions. Significant changes over a very short time indicated that the emission source was confined to a small region of space. The results suggested that a supermassive black hole was the culprit.

1975: Looking at the galaxy in visible light with a CTIO telescope, Victor Blanco discovered a faint jet out in the galaxy. He also noted blue stellar objects in this region.

1975–76: Using information from the SIGMA satellite and high-flying research balloons, Josh Grindlay and R.D. Hall detected gamma ray emissions, which were probably coming from the nucleus.

Late 1970s: John Graham, using a CTIO telescope, found a series of faint shells of gas in the outer regions of the galaxy. These shells could have been produced by collisions of gas from a galaxy merger.

1979: Using the Einstein Observatory, Ethan Schreier discovered an X-ray jet emanating from the nucleus of Centaurus A. Working with Eric Feigelson and Jack Burns, Schreier used the Very Large Array in New Mexico to find the jet's radio counterpart.

1981: Using the Einstein Observatory, Schreier and Feigelson also observed extended X-ray emissions in the galaxy, including ridges of emissions along the north and south edges of the dust lane.

1996: Schreier used the Hubble Space Telescope's Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2) to study the dust lane's properties and the distribution of young stars along its northern edge. The young, blue stars provided further proof that Centaurus A, an elliptical galaxy, merged with a spiral galaxy. Elliptical galaxies such as Centaurus A would not have had enough dust and gas to form clusters of new stars.

1997: Kenneth Kellermann, Anton Zensus, and Marshall Cohen, using the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) in New Mexico, observed that the core of Centaurus A is only 10 light-days across, making it the smallest known extragalactic radio source. They also noted that the energy produced by this source varies in intensity every day. This core has a mass of about 100 million suns.

1997–98: Schreier used WFPC2 to further examine the nucleus and the bright, young stars. Since WFPC2 cannot peer through the dusty core, Schreier and Alessandro Marconi turned to the Hubble Space Telescope's Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS) to explore the core. They found a very compact nucleus and also discovered a central, warped disk. The disk could have been warped by a collision with another galaxy.


"Tales of ... Key events in the history of Centaurus A" chronicles astronomers' observations of the galaxy Centaurus A. It highlights changes in its classification from a nebula to an elliptical galaxy as well as the discovery that its core contains a massive black hole. Students can easily identify how emerging technology has changed our view of this galaxy. This selection originally appeared as background information for a press release on Centaurus A.

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9-12, but the material can be adapted for use in other grades at the teacher's discretion
How to use in the classroom

Teachers can use this resource as:

A content reading selection. Teachers should discuss the meaning of unfamiliar vocabulary prior to having students read this selection.

An engagement activity. Have students read the selection. Ask them what evidence exists for the existence of a black hole in Centaurus A.

An inquiry tool. Propose a question, such as, "How do we know black holes exist if we've never seen one?" Have students read the selection and write down as many questions as they can about the information in the text.

A source of information. Students can identify the emerging technology that has changed our view of this galaxy. After reading the selection, have students list the changes in technology that led astronomers to conclude that a black hole is in the center of Centaurus A.

Related materials

HubbleSite press release: "Hubble Provides Multiple Views of How to Feed a Black Hole"

Amazing Space resources by topic: Black holes

Amazing Space resources by topic: Galaxies