Best-Ever Radio Image of Black Hole Jets

Article written: 20 May , 2011
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015
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A new image taken by an array of radio telescopes is the best resolution view ever of particle jets erupting from a supermassive black hole in a nearby galaxy. An international team of astronomers targeted Centaurus A (Cen A), and the image shows a region less than 4.2 light-years across — less than the distance between our sun and the nearest star. Radio-emitting features as small as 15 light-days can be seen, making this the most detailed image yet of black hole jets.


“These jets arise as infalling matter approaches the black hole, but we don’t yet know the details of how they form and maintain themselves,” said Cornelia Mueller, the study’s lead author and a doctoral student at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany.

The data was gathered by the TANAMI project (Tracking Active Galactic Nuclei with Austral Milliarcsecond Interferometry), an intercontinental array of nine radio telescopes.

While not completely understood, black hole particle jets typically escape the confines of their host galaxies and flow for hundreds of thousands of light years. They are somewhat a paradox, because while black holes are known for pulling matter in, they also produce these jets which accelerate matter at near light speed.

They are a primary means of redistributing matter and energy in the universe, and understanding them will be key to understanding galaxy formation and other cosmic mysteries such as the origin of ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays.

While the black hole is invisible, the jets are seen in great detail in the new image. Cen A is located about 12 million light-years away in the constellation Centaurus and is one of the first celestial radio sources identified with a galaxy.

Seen in radio waves, Cen A is one of the biggest and brightest objects in the sky, nearly 20 times the apparent size of a full moon. This is because the visible galaxy lies nestled between a pair of giant radio-emitting lobes, each nearly a million light-years long.

Merging X-ray data (blue) from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory with microwave (orange) and visible images reveals the jets and radio-emitting lobes emanating from Centaurus A's central black hole. Credit: ESO/WFI (visible); MPIfR/ESO/APEX/A.Weiss et al. (microwave); NASA/CXC/CfA/R.Kraft et al. (X-ray)

These lobes are filled with matter streaming from particle jets near the galaxy’s central black hole. Astronomers estimate that matter near the base of these jets races outward at about one-third the speed of light.

The new study will appear in the June issue of Astronomy and Astrophysics and is available online.

Source: NASA

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19 Responses

  1. andres says

    Thats amazing. A beautiful picture. Also, makes you wonder since by definition in my astronomy class, a black hole is; any object from which the escape velocity exceeds the speed of light….How the hell are these jets escaping? From what i understand they are not even going the speed of light (although damn close).

    • Anonymous says

      I was about to give a thought on that anyway, since the article makes the usual “error” again of calling it a “paradox” (which it isn’t), but I can also answer your question directly:

      1) Whatever crosses the event horizon of a black hole can never come back out. It’s ultimately doomed.
      2) However, material that has not yet crossed that horizon (sometimes referred to as the surface of the black hole, although this is a bit misleading — there is no membrane or something, it’s just some point in space(time) where the escape velocity exceeds the speed of light) can escape again, and so can magnetic fields.

      And here comes the story:
      Material cannot fall as easy into a black hole as one might think. It accumulates in a flat disc around the black hole called the accretion disk. Due to friction this disk gets very hot (it shines brightly in X-rays!) and the material becomes a plasma which makes it interact with magnetic fields. Due to the rotation of the disk (which is also the reason why the material does not fall so easy into the black hole in the first place) the magnetic fields also need to rotate with the disk and become wound up around the poles of the black holes, forming two narrow channels.
      And this is the important clue: The channels are formed (from the) outside of the black hole. Matter in them comes mostly directly out of the accretion disk. Nothing comes out of the black hole! It’s all matter from close by.
      As a matter of fact: I’ve just drawn the basic picture. The details are highly complicated and not yet fully understood. It’s a very active field of research!

      I hope this helped a bit….

      • Anonymous says

        Agreed, the jet is produced by MHD outside the event horizon. Stuff that crosses the event horizon is in a spacelike trapping region.

        The resolution on this is about good enough to image things right up to the black hole. At one light day, about 10^{10}km, is close to the size of a super massive black hole.

        LC

    • Member
      IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE says

      … and if that doesn’t help, then here’s an illustration of what DrFlimmer was talking about: Black hole jet diagram.

  2. Anonymous says

    Great work, and it’ll be particularly interesting to monitor the temporal variation of these features over the coming months/years…

  3. Anonymous says

    “20 times the apparent size of a full moon”…. What I wouldn’t give for wide-spectrum eyes… (and probably a very stable neck to go with….)

  4. Anonymous says

    “20 times the apparent size of a full moon”…. What I wouldn’t give for wide-spectrum eyes… (and probably a very stable neck to go with….)

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  9. Damian says

    So a galaxy is a black hole’s accretion disc? I think a distinction is needed between a galaxy level SMBH and ye old regular stellar black holes and stars with jets; like Herbig-Haro objects.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herbig%E2%80%93Haro_object

    I sometimes get the feeling that the similarities between the two observed phenomena are used interchangeably, however they are very different environments. While its pertinent to surmise that similar dynamo systems could power both phenomena, the details are yet to be properly observed. HH-30 is a interesting possible example of this sort of dynamo,

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Protoplanetary_disk_HH-30.jpg

    What we do observe is that jets happen in pulses in both systems, that suggests interaction with mass such as gas clouds in both galactic and inter galactic medium. Alternatively this variability is a fluctuation of the dynamo itself. Which has stranger implications.

    What is missing in our observational arsenal is a means of seeing gravity and magnetism without the aid of a medium that follows magnetic field lines. I can only imagine the structures that might occupy the blank spots in the image of HH-30.

    In a possibly unrelated field of study, Dr. Dan Lathrop’s study of the Earth’s magnetic field; his experiments with molten sodium dynamo’s did not create their own magnetic field, however once exposed to an external magnetic field they did form their own. Perhaps this a leap of the imagination, but this might suggest that the universe has its own magnetic variability. That its not stellar bodies generating magnetic fields but instead being charged by them. Hypothetically when exposed to a strong magnetic environment, stellar dynamos react in effects such as jets. Also jets are an efficient way for the star-disc system to shed angular momentum without losing too much mass, so perhaps jets are a kind of stellar safety valve for highly charged packets of the universe.?

    Just conjecture, but I would be interested to hear of what you all may think of this.

    BTW, something is wrong with this ‘Discus’ comments thing here, I cant type properly, it has LAG. (or something)

    • Anonymous says

      So a galaxy is a black hole’s accretion disc?

      No. The accretion disk of a SMBH at the center of a galaxy is probably a few light-hours in diameter. A galaxy is typically a few tens of thousands of light-years wide.

      I think a distinction is needed between a galaxy level SMBH and ye old regular stellar black holes and stars with jets; like Herbig-Haro objects.[…] however they are very different environments.

      They are not very different. There is a central object, an accretion disk and a jet. It doesn’t really matter what the central object is since the jet is mostly anchored in the disk and not the central object (maybe there is some entanglement with the magnetic field of the star, but it should be of lesser importance).
      Indeed, details are not clear, but the overall picture makes a lot of sense, already.

      What we do observe is that jets happen in pulses in both systems, […] Alternatively this variability is a fluctuation of the dynamo itself.

      The variability of the jet can come from both causes. Intense variability comes most likely from the disk itself. When a large clump of matter is accreted at one moment, there must also be an equal great loss of angular momentum, which is transferred into the jet. On the other hand, jet material can also interact with material passing too close to (or even right through) the jet. Both phenomena are plausible and surely happening, are not strange at all.

      What is missing in our observational arsenal is a means of seeing gravity and magnetism without the aid of a medium that follows magnetic field lines.

      In a classical “pre-Einsteinian” way to look at it, both gravity and magnetic fields are just forces, which are invisible and are only observable through there action on material. There is no other way to measure them as by their action on things.#

      I can only imagine the structures that might occupy the blank spots in the image of HH-30.

      This is completely unrelated, btw. The “blank spots” are the outer edges of the accretion disk (edge-on), or material that is left over at the outskirts of the gas cloud from which the star formed. This material is cool and therefore dark in optical wavelength. It also contains dust which is a very good absorber for optical light. I’m quite sure that this feature is much brighter in (far) infrared. The blueish hour-glass shaped object is also part of this gas and dust that is left over from the formation. However, this reflects the star’s light. That’s also why it appears blue (at least it does for me), since blue light is scattered more easily than redder wavelength (the reason for the blue sky on earth…).

      Not to complain, but your last (longer) paragraph sounds a lot like some EU stuff (correct me, if I’m wrong!!). The first magnetic fields were most likely created during the epoch of reionisation. Once these “seed fields” were available, they were indeed reprocessed and also amplified by stellar dynamos (that’s also how a dynamo on a bike works). However, stars are not powered by them. There is not enough power and energy in them to do such a thing. Also, jets do not transport “highly charged clouds”. They transport charged particles (yes), but the clouds contain equal amounts of charges and are overall neutral.

      • Damian says

        Thanks Dr Flimmer, Just to Correct, No Electric Universes Affiliations whatsoever. Im an artist, I have no science credentials, this is a intellectual interest only.

        I have been experimenting with Magnetic Filed Viewers, (hobby stuff) and I am fascinated by the structures that magnetic fields actually produce, so by extension I feel that IF we were able to image them directly on stellar objects we might see something surprising. I know there are Gauss imagers that reconstruct magnetic data in computer simulations, but thats not the same thing.

        In relation to HH-30, thanks for the explanation, its easy to forget that such images are imaged using specific wavelengths, I guess thats what makes the image of Centaurus – A so fascinating, It combines these into a composite image.

        Re the Magnetic variability in the universe; Interesting, so you agree that such exists. Im not suggesting that stars are powered by such fields, just that when stellar objects encounter strong fields they might amplify them to the point where jets are created. Do you think thats Implausible?

        Dr. Dan Lathrop’s simulated planetary core is a work in progress, so any conjectures linking the results from his experiments and stellar dynamics are my own and should be taken with a grain of salt. 🙂 Interesting however.

        http://complex.umd.edu/MHD_nonlinear_lab.html.html

      • Anonymous says

        Just to Correct, No Electric Universes Affiliations whatsoever.

        My apologies! It’s just that we are kind of biased here and probably tend to see it even if it’s not meant to be.

        Concerning the magnetic fields, I’m not quite sure what you mean with “magnetic variability in the universe”. We know of interstellar and even intergalactic magnetic fields but both are extremely weak. They are not capable of doing a lot apart from deflecting electrons from the cosmic radiation (that’s why mostly protons and alpha particles arrive here (apart from very few heavier nuclei), they are too heavy for the magnetic field to be deflected or “captured”).
        So, for a magnetic field in the universe to become turbulent or amplified you need a power source somewhere (not a source of magnetic fields (there are none) but a source for the amplification). Stars or accretion disk (or the earth’s fluid-like core) are sources for such amplifications. There you can have pretty strong magnetic fields on the order of even a few Gauss. A neutron star is able to produce magnetic fields with a strength of 10^10 Tesla, but this is not the norm 😉 .
        Jets are created by due to the rotation of the accretion disk. They “swirl” the magnetic fields creating these very narrow funnels along the pole axis (in both directions). So, the cause is some violence in the plasma and not due to the magnetic field itself.

      • Damian says

        Thanks for taking the time to reply, It was just a thought experiment. If as you say the Intergalactic field is too weak to generate such a result, then in lieu of observations to the contrary my idea is indeed on weak ground.

        IBEX results do however indicate the presence of a interstellar or galactic magnetic field. Though the Ribbon is only on the order of 300 keV at its strongest, it does demonstrate that large exo solar magnetic fields do exist. I guess a validation might be when IBEX data indicates strong fields at the heliosphere and that results in increased activity on our sun. (as a hypothetical proof of concept 🙂

        Some further reading on this topic:
        http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/11/101125202011.htm

        Thanks

    • Torbjörn Larsson says

      his experiments with molten sodium dynamo’s did not create their own magnetic field, however once exposed to an external magnetic field they did form their own.

      Reflecting DrFlimmer’s response, AFAIK this is how intrinsic magnetic fields of planets comes to be, as a (dynamo theory)reaction to protoplanetary disks/stellar magnetic fields.

  10. Member
    Aqua4U says

    Be interesting to know if the jets are composed of oppositely charged or spun matter… opposite chirality that is and not simple pole opposition. That would make ejecta from either pole composed of LH vs RH molecular associations. An accretion disk would then become the ash remnant at the annihilation interface between the two preferential polarity’s with one always ‘chasing after’ another.. like husband and wife? Like matter and antimatter… you decide… [email protected]; )

    Our Milky Way’s polar gamma ray halo emissions appear to be a similar effect but not nearly as coherent or beam-like, due to the effects of a slower rotation?

  11. Member
    Aqua4U says

    Be interesting to know if the jets are composed of oppositely charged or spun matter… opposite chirality that is and not simple pole opposition. That would make ejecta from either pole composed of LH vs RH molecular associations. An accretion disk would then become the ash remnant at the annihilation interface between the two preferential polarity’s with one always ‘chasing after’ another.. like husband and wife? Like matter and antimatter… you decide… [email protected]; )

    Our Milky Way’s polar gamma ray halo emissions appear to be a similar effect but not nearly as coherent or beam-like, due to the effects of a slower rotation?

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