Image of jets spurting out of a supermassive black hole captured

Incredible image of high-energy jets spurting out of a supermassive black hole at nearly the speed of light is captured by the Event Horizon Telescope

  • The high-energy jets of hot plasma were spotted near the heart of galaxy M 87
  • Researchers from the Event Horizon Telescope captured the stunning image
  • The hot jets were being ejected from the black hole at 99.5 of the speed of light 

An amazing image of high-energy fire-hose-like jets of plasma, produced by a supermassive black hole, has been captured for the first time.

Researchers from the Event Horizon Telescope say the jets, spotted in galaxy M 87, were being launched from a giant black hole at 99.5 per cent of light speed.  

The black hole that launched the jets is about a billion times more massive than the Sun and is at the centre of the galaxy five billion light years away from Earth.

In a series of images captured by the virtual telescope over the course of a week the jets can be seen flying away from the black hole. 

The speeding jet image was captured by the team that published the first direct photo of a black hole in April 2019 – which was also found in the galaxy M 87.    

Researchers from the Event Horizon Telescope say the jets, spotted in galaxy M 87, were being launched from the giant black hole at 99.5 per cent of light speed

Astronomers from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, Bonn, traced the speeding jets of plasma back to the giant black hole.  

Lead author Jae-Young Kim and colleagues were able to trace the jet back to its launch point, close to where violently variable radiation from across the electromagnetic spectrum arises. 

Scientists say there is still a lot more information to be found in the dataset that led to this discovery, as well as the first black hole image from last year.

To capture the new image, the EHT uses a technique called very long baseline interferometry (VLBI), which synchronises and links radio dishes around the world. 

By combining this network to form one huge virtual Earth-size telescope, the EHT is able to resolve objects as small as 20 micro-arcseconds on the sky. 

This is the equivalent of someone on Earth identifying an orange on the Moon. 

It’s a year since the first direct image of a black hole – pictured – was captured by the same Event Horizon Telescope team

Anton Zensus, Director at the MPIfR and Chair of the EHT Collaboration Board, stresses the achievement as a global effort. 

“Last year we could present the first image of the shadow of a black hole, he said.

‘Now we see unexpected changes in the shape of the jet in 3C 279, and we are not done yet. As we told last year: this is just the beginning.” 

Data recorded at all the EHT sites around the world is transported to special supercomputers  where they are combined to create what we now see.

The combined data set is then carefully calibrated and analyzed by team of experts, which then enables EHT scientists to produce images with the finest detail possible from the surface of the Earth. 

Using a ‘virtual telescope’ built eight radio observatories positioned at different points on the globe, the team behind the Event Horizon Telescope has spent the last few years probing Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the heart of the Milky Way, and another target in the Virgo cluster of galaxies.

The observations relies on a network of widely spaced radio antennas. 

These are all over the world – in the South Pole, Hawaii, Europe and America.

These radios mimics the aperture of a telescope that can produce the resolution needed to capture Sagittarius A. 

At each of the radio stations there are large hard drives which will store the data.

These hard drives are then processed at the MIT Haystack Observatory just outside Boston, Massachusetts.

The effort is essentially working to capture a silhouette of a black hole, also commonly referred to as the black hole’s shadow.

This would be ‘its dark shape on a bright background of light coming from the surrounding matter, deformed by a strong spacetime curvature,’ the ETH team explains. 

The jets discovered by the team have been dubbed a quasar because an ultra-luminous source of energy at its centre shines and flickers as gas falls into a giant black hole.

Known as 3C-279, it’s features were measured to a level finer than a light-year across.

This allows astronomers to follow the jet down to the accretion disc of the black hole – that is the outer edges of the giant stellar object – in order to see the jets in action.

The newly analyzed data show that the normally straight jet has an unexpected twisted shape at its base and, revealing features perpendicular to the jet that could be interpreted as the poles of the accretion disc where the jets are ejected. 

The fine details in the images change over consecutive days, possibly due to rotation of the accretion disc, and shredding and infall of material.

This is a phenomena expected from numerical simulations but never before observed – so proving predicted behaviour for the first time.

 Kim, researcher at MPIfR and lead author of the paper, is enthusiastic and at the same time puzzled by the discovery.

‘We knew that every time you open a new window to the Universe you can find something new,’ Kim said. 

The jets discovered by the team have been dubbed a quasar because an ultra-luminous source of energy at its centre shines and flickers as gas falls into a giant black hole

‘Here, where we expected to find the region where the jet forms by going to the sharpest image possible, we find a kind of perpendicular structure.

‘This is like finding a very different shape by opening the smallest Matryoshka doll.’ 

Because of this rapid motion, the jet in 3C 279 appears to move at about 20 times the speed of light – which is thought to be impossible. 

“This extraordinary optical illusion arises because the material is racing toward us, chasing down the very light it is emitting and making it appear to be moving faster than it is,” clarifies Dom Pesce, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian (CfA). 

The unexpected geometry suggests the presence of traveling shocks or instabilities in a bent, rotating jet, which might also explain emission at high energies such as gamma-rays, the team behind the discovery suggest.

It’s a year since the first direct image of a black hole was captured by the same Event Horizon Telescope team – it was also found in M87.

WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE GALAXY MESSIER 87?

The elliptical galaxy Messier 87 (M87) is the home of several trillion stars, a supermassive black hole and a family of roughly 15,000 globular star clusters. 

For comparison, our Milky Way galaxy contains only a few hundred billion stars and about 150 globular clusters. 

The monstrous M87 is the dominant member of the neighbouring Virgo cluster of galaxies, which contains some 2,000 galaxies. 

Discovered in 1781 by Charles Messier, this galaxy is located 54 million light-years away from Earth in the constellation Virgo. 

It can be easily observed using a small telescope, with the most spectacular views available in May. 

The elliptical galaxy Messier 87 (M87) is the home of several trillion stars, a supermassive black hole and a family of roughly 15,000 globular star clusters. This Hubble image is a composite of individual observations in visible and infrared light

M87’s most striking features are the blue jet near the centre and the myriad of star-like globular clusters scattered throughout the image.

The jet is a black-hole-powered stream of material that is being ejected from M87’s core.

As gaseous material from the centre of the galaxy accretes onto the black hole, the energy released produces a stream of subatomic particles that are accelerated to velocities near the speed of light.

At the centre of the Virgo cluster, M87 may have accumulated some of its many globular clusters by gravitationally pulling them from nearby dwarf galaxies that seem to be devoid of such clusters today.

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