These Black Hole Jets Put the Death Star to Shame

No one really understands just quite how this happens, but it looks really cool.

Black hole jets flying in space with blue and red light shapes
X-ray (blue): NASA/CXC/Univ of Hertforshire/M. Hardcastle et al., Radio (red): CSIRO/ATNF/ATCA

The black hole. If something with a gravitational force strong enough to pull itself and everything near it into itself wasn’t cool enough, how about something that does that and shoots eternal jets of energy out further than the Milky Way is wide? Done: On Tuesday, NASA released an image of a jet and counter-jet emerging from the supermassive black hole at the center of Pictor A, a galaxy that’s some 500 million light years from Earth.

To make this mind-boggling space picture, scientists combined data from NASA’s Chandra x-ray Observatory (below in red) and the Australia Telescope Compact Array (blue). It took them 15 years. Results explaining the new image were released on Tuesday and will be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The jet shoots out from the black hole and pushes through the surrounding gas. Shockwaves create the hotspot, like a sonic boom, at the tip of the jet. 

X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ of Hertfordshire/M.Hardcastle et al., Radio: CSIRO/ATNF/ATCA

The big thing you need to know about this black hole is that as space bits swirl around its event horizon — the point of no return, unless you ask Hawking — they release energy, which produces an enormous beam that puts Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber thing to shame. The jet contains particles traveling at the speed of light — the one on the right sends out continuous x-ray beams for a distance of 300,000 light years (the width of three Milky Ways) into intergalactic space. The image also confirms previous evidence of a counter jet, fainter and further away, shooting out from the black hole in the opposite direction.

Scientists can use the relative proximity of the two jets and knowledge about x-rays to test ideas about how the the x-ray emission came to be. Researchers think that x-ray emissions most likely come from synchrotron emission — when electrons spin around on magnetic field lines like you might imagine paperclips would along rows and rows of magnets.

With the jets of the far-away galaxy Pictor A, the electrons have to keep moving, but no one really understands how this happens.

Artist illustration of the Chandra X-ray Observatory.

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