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Erin Hicks is hoping black holes will answer some of our biggest astronomical questions

by Catalina Myers  |   

Erin Hicks in the UAA Planetarium and Visualization Theater.
Erin Hicks, associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, has studied black holes and their relationship to galaxies. She was recently awarded observation time on the James Webb Space Telescope. (Photo by Phillip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)

Erin Hicks, associate professor in UAA’s Department of Astronomy and Physics, is asking some really big questions — perhaps some of the biggest questions that have ever existed. Like, why are we here?

She may be one step closer to finding the answer this summer and fall.

Hicks and her collaborators were recently awarded observation time on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) for two research projects, to be carried out as part of a larger effort known as the Galactic Activity, Torus and Outflow Survey (GATOS), and Hicks will be focusing her research time on JWST by studying supermassive black holes. 

Like most big existential questions, it’s complicated, and often the answers lead to more questions. But as scientists’ understanding of the universe continues to expand and technological advances allow researchers to access and study the universe in ways we’ve never done before, we may be closer to answering some of humankind's biggest questions. 

“It's incredibly exciting and a lot of what we have done over the past couple decades has been incrementally stepping toward answering those [big] questions,” said Hicks. “I think with JWST we're going to take a big step forward in answering fundamental questions about the role of black holes in the formation and evolution of galaxies.”

For decades astronomers and physicists have had access to high-powered telescopes. The problem is that the majority of these are located on planet Earth. Even though scientists could significantly advance our understanding of the universe, galaxies, stars and other celestial objects within it, Earth’s atmosphere limits our view of the cosmos. With the launch of JWST in December 2021, scientists across the field of astronomy will have the most precise infrared picture they’ve ever had of the universe. JWST’s orbiting infrared technology will allow researchers across the globe to study and explore the cosmos, its origins and the objects within it in an entirely new way. 

Galaxies and their supermassive black holes

Hicks’ research with JWST focuses on the relationship between galaxies and the supermassive black holes at their centers. She said every galaxy has one, and despite its terrifying nature, black holes are a critical component of the formation of galaxies and perhaps even have a profound impact on the evolution of the universe as a whole.

“My specific piece of the puzzle that I focus on is understanding why in some galaxies the black hole is growing and what impact that has on the galaxy,” Hicks said. Much of her work has focused on determining the connection between a galaxy and its black hole by tracking the motion of gas and stars within the vicinity of a black hole by observing light emitted by excited gas and stars and the shifting of this light as they move. “Through observations we know a connection exists [between galaxies and black holes], the physics of how this connection is created is what we don’t yet understand.”

Hicks said this big broad overarching scientific goal is what she’s been working on throughout her career through various studies making use of telescopes around the globe and in space . She and her colleagues have made a lot of progress through tracking the motions of gas and stars within the vicinity of black holes, but now it’s time to take the next step in understanding the process and relationship between galaxies and black holes.

In recent years, Hicks and her colleagues have characterized the region surrounding black holes that are actively growing, discovering that large quantities of gas and new stars forming are common, as are outflows of energetic gas. Because of the incredible energy near the black hole, a lot of material is launched outward, creating massive outflows emanating from the galaxy's center, influencing and shaping the galaxy on a larger scale. She said we tend to think that once material is headed toward a black hole, it’s always forced in, but from observing these massive outflows, they know material can be ejected before it falls in and even escape the gravitational pull of a black hole, but how? That’s the next big step in piecing together the puzzle.

“By next step, I mean broadening our view beyond the specific kind of gas that we are currently measuring with the specific instruments that we've been able to use,” said Hicks. There are many gas components in a region near a black hole, and Hicks, through her research, has only been able to observe small pieces of a much larger puzzle. “We need the whole picture; we need to bring all of it together. The JWST enables us, for the first time, to be able to bring a missing piece in and allow us to build a more holistic view of what's happening in the regions that surround these black holes.”

Data, data and more data

Hicks said she and her colleagues, along with her graduate student, will be busy this summer and into the fall analyzing  the initial data JWST provides. After analyzing and modeling the data, the real physics fun begins and she’s hopeful the data will provide some exciting new scientific insight into galaxies and their relationship with black holes.

She said it’s an incredibly exciting time in her field and feels fortunate to have the opportunity to work with international colleagues with a broad range of expertise  in a collaboration aiming to  answer some fundamental questions about the formation of our universe. Hicks said that it's equally important to her that students at UAA are exposed to this type of research and have the opportunity to work on the frontiers of science exploration, discovery and technology.

“I'm fortunate to have the opportunity to work with our UAA students within my research group, but to also engage them in collaborating with astronomers around the globe, including those within the GATOS group,” Hicks said. 

Hicks said she hopes JWST, her research and the work of scientists around the world get us one step closer to understanding  how our universe has come to be as we see it today. The JWST is just one step closer to creating a more holistic view of the universe, and that, she said, is incredibly exciting.

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