Kapow! Black Hole’s Jet Highlights A Galactic ‘Dust Lane’ 12 Million Light-Years Away

by Elizabeth Howell on February 7, 2014

Centaurus A (the site of a supermassive black hole) shines brightly in this composite image from the Chandra X-ray Observatory. Scientists used the equivalent of 9.5 days' worth of observations between 1999 and 2012. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/U.Birmingham/M.Burke et al.

Centaurus A (the site of a supermassive black hole) shines brightly in this composite image from the Chandra X-ray Observatory. Scientists used the equivalent of 9.5 days’ worth of observations between 1999 and 2012. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/U.Birmingham/M.Burke et al.

This image, right here, shows us the value of long-term observations. It’s a composite of pictures taken between 1999 and 2012 from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Telescope. Put 9.5 days’ worth of observations together, and you can see a lot of action in Centaurus A — namely, a huge jet emanating from a ginormous black hole embedded in the galaxy.

“As in all of Chandra’s images of Cen A, this one shows the spectacular jet of outflowing material – seen pointing from the middle to the upper left – that is generated by the giant black hole at the galaxy’s center. This new high-energy snapshot of Cen A also highlights a dust lane that wraps around the waist of the galaxy. Astronomers think this feature is a remnant of a collision that Cen A experienced with a smaller galaxy millions of years ago,” NASA stated.

Black hole with disc and jets visualization courtesy of ESA

Black hole with disc and jets visualization courtesy of ESA

A past survey of X-ray sources in Cen A revealed that most of them are black holes or neutron stars (the latter created from the wake of a huge star’s collapse). It seems that most of these sources are either less than twice the mass of the sun, or more than five times as massive. Here’s the more interesting bit: the smaller ones appear to be neutron stars, and the bigger ones black holes.

“This mass gap may tell us about the way massive stars explode. Scientists expect an upper limit on the most massive neutron stars, up to twice the mass of the Sun,” NASA added.

“What is puzzling is that the smallest black holes appear to weigh in at about five times the mass of the Sun. Stars are observed to have a continual range of masses, and so in terms of their progeny’s weight we would expect black holes to carry on where neutron stars left off.”

The 2013 paper is available both in The Astrophysical Journal and in preprint version on Arxiv.

About 

Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.

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