Researchers have captured a picture of a large, powerful plasma jet-propelled by a supermassive black hole in unparalleled detail.
The team suggests the bright bubble on the left of the image is believed to be the gas and dust disk swirling around the black hole, with the plasma jet being represented by a stream of less intense red characteristics seemingly emanating from it.
Experts claim the jet is part of what is known as a blazar system. These are created from quasars – supermassive black holes that are actively sucking in the material that wind up magnetic fields as they rotate, resulting in two jets shooting out material from around the black hole, one pointing towards the Earth.
Some of it around the black hole is doomed only to cross the horizon of the event and never come back, but some of it can be released along those strong magnetic field lines it loop the black hole, and that’s what the jet is,” said Dr. Ziri Younsi of University College London, a study co-author.
“Black holes don’t just suck up a lot of matter, they even spit out a lot of it because they’re strongly magnetized and spinning so hard,” he said.
Crucially, the team claims, the picture is the highest resolution yet of a jet circling a supermassive black hole, which means the researchers will explore for the first time what is happening at the jet base.
Indeed a close-up shot reveals a cloud near the black hole that seems to be slightly off the jet’s axis.
“It’s offset by quite a few degrees,” Younsi said.
This, he said, means that at the base of the jet there might be some sort of “kink,” or material that is being twisted around the jet. Alternatively, the blobs may be part of the bottom of the gas and dust cloud that covers the black hole and feeds it.
But, Younsi added, questions remain, like just what the jet’s plasma consists of, and just how the jet interacts with the black hole.
The image was taken by the Event Horizon Telescope, published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics a major research undertaking involving a network of eight radio telescopes and a massive team of researchers worldwide.
The team claims the black hole is part of a quasar called 3C 279, which is 200 times bigger than the black hole in Milky Way’s core. The quasar, they say, lies in the constellation Virgo, in a galaxy 5bn light-years away.
“It is still quite far away,” Younsi said. “Normally we wouldn’t be able to see anything, because by the time it hits us the light would already be too red-shifted.
But when this jet is aimed almost straight at us, all the radiation is amplified and it looks much brighter than it actually is and so we can sense it.”
The jet’s course, pointing to Earth, also explains another mystery – why the jet appears to fly 15-20 times faster than the speed of light.
The latest work is not the first spectacular image from the exploration of the Event Horizon Telescope: the team published the first image of a black hole last year, showing a blinding halo of gas and dust.
Yet Younsi told physicists that the latest images were even more thrilling. “It’s the first time we’re really starting to see the jet’s relation to the black hole and the accretion disk of gas and dust,” he said.
“It actually helps us to start answering questions about how power jets from black holes, how the black holes eat, how they expand.”
This is significant, he added, because not all galaxies have a black hole with large-scale jets-including our own Milky Way.
“Why is one of the big questions-why do we not have a huge jet like many other galaxies? “Younsi said.
The new picture, Younsi said, was a sign of things to come this is just really preliminary research, it’s just the start,” he said.
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