It’s the Eyjafjallajokull of space! Chandra and the VLA have teamed up to find an erupting galactic “super-volcano” in the massive galaxy M87. Hot gas glowing in X-ray light (shown in blue) surrounds M87, and as the gas cools, it can fall toward the galaxy’s center where it should continue to cool even faster and form new stars. But radio observations with the Very Large Array (red-orange) suggest that in M87 jets of very energetic particles produced by the black hole interrupt this process. These jets lift up the relatively cool gas near the center of the galaxy and produce shock waves in the galaxy’s atmosphere because of their supersonic speed. Scientists say this action is similar to what took place with the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland that occurred in 2010.
With Eyjafjallajokull, pockets of hot gas blasted through the surface of the lava, generating shock waves that can be seen passing through the grey smoke of the volcano. This hot gas then rises up in the atmosphere, dragging the dark ash with it. Remember the close-up movie of the volcano’s eruption — (see below)? Shock waves propagating in the smoke are followed by the rise of dark ash clouds into the atmosphere.
In the case of this cosmic volcano in M87, the energetic particles produced in the vicinity of the black hole rise through the X-ray emitting atmosphere of the cluster, lifting up the coolest gas near the center of M87 in their wake. This is similar to the hot volcanic gases that drag up the clouds of dark ash. And just like the volcano here on Earth, shock waves can be seen when the black hole pumps energetic particles into the cluster gas. The Chandra team has provided a labeled version of the image which shows the energetic particles, cool gas and shock waves.
M87 is about 50 million light years from Earth and lies at the center of the Virgo cluster, which contains thousands of galaxies.
Nancy Atkinson is currently Universe Today’s Contributing Editor. Previously she served as UT’s Senior Editor and lead writer, and has worked with Astronomy Cast and 365 Days of Astronomy. Nancy is the author of the new book “Incredible Stories from Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos.” She is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.