Professor publishes astrophysics article

Allison Mueller

Kilat Fitzgerald / Winonan

Discovering the forces at play beyond Earth, is, quite literally, an astronomical challenge. Winona State University’s assistant physics professor, Carl Ferkinhoff, has recently been recognized for a contribution to that challenge.

His work has been published by the Astrophysical Journal, in an article he co-wrote with Cody Lamarche, a graduate student at Cornell University, titled “CO-Dark Star Formation and Black Hole Activity in 3C 368 at z=1.311: Coeval Growth of Stellar and Supermassive Black Hole Masses.”

The galaxy being featured in the study is named 3C 368.

“We’re looking at galaxies in the early universe,” Ferkinhoff said. “The universe is about 14 billion years old, and this galaxy, 3C 368, was around about 7 billion years ago.”

The purpose of the research was to grasp the interaction between the active galactic nuclei of a galaxy and the stars that form within it.

The Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN) is the bright center region of a galaxy that consists of massive black holes that act as gravity wells for everything around them. Much of what gets sucked into the black hole is lost to the intense pressure within, but some particles find themselves riding outward. On the wave of energy emitted from the center of the black hole, particles are shot into space with jets emitting energy in the form of light and whatever other elements are caught in the reaction. Measuring such activity as it takes place light years away, takes creative forms of investigation.

The method of measuring the age of the galaxy used by this astronomer includes the use of an Infrared Spectrograph, or IRS for short. The process is similar to a prism breaking light into a rainbow. Incoming infrared light is broken into a spectrum, and each unique element is analyzed according to its chemical footprint.

This device, which is on board the Spitzer Space Telescope, a telescope that was launched into space in 2003, provides data that makes it possible to estimate the approximate age of the starburst within the galaxy. It was found that the age of the starburst coincided with the latest episode of AGN activity.

“What we’re seeing is a powerful black hole in the center of vigorous star formation,” Lamarche said. “There may be a correlation between black hole activity and star formation. It’s certainly been an interesting study, and we look forward to a follow up article.”

The unexpected discovery made about galaxy 3C 368 was the lack of carbon monoxide, which comes with a new set of theories on its own.

“We detect absolutely no carbon monoxide, which is kind of shocking,” Ferkinhoff said.

One possibility is that all the carbon monoxide has been destroyed, which could happen if the AGN emitted a lot of radiation. Another possibility is the jets shooting out of the AGN into the gas outside the galaxy could also stir the cosmos, creating small, dispersed clouds of hydrogen and other elements scattered throughout the galaxy.

Only future research will answer the questions posed by this data, as levels will continue to be monitored by collaborative efforts.

By Kilat Fitzgerald