Gigantic Plasma Jets Pour From the Heart of Hercules A

Combined Hubble (optical) and VLA (radio) images show enormous radio jets shooting out from the galaxy Hercules A

Talk about pouring your heart out! Astronomers using Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 and the recently-upgraded Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope in New Mexico have identified gigantic jets of plasma, subatomic particles and magnetic fields blasting out of the center of Hercules A, a massive galaxy 2 billion light-years away.

The image above is a combination of optical images from Hubble and radio data gathered by the multi-dish VLA. If our eyes could see in the high-energy spectrum of radio, this is what Hercules A — the otherwise ordinary-looking elliptical galaxy in the center — would really look like.

(Of course, if we could see in radio our entire sky would be a very optically busy place!)

Also known as 3C 348, Hercules A is incredibly massive — nearly 1,000 times the mass of our Milky Way galaxy with a similarly scaled-up version of  a supermassive black hole at its center. Due to its powerful gravity and intense magnetic field Hercules A’s monster black hole is firing superheated material far out into space from its rotational poles. Although invisible in optical light, these jets are bright in radio wavelengths and are thus revealed through VLA observations.

Traveling close to the speed of light, the jets stretch for nearly 1.5 million light-years from both sides of the galaxy. Ring-shaped structures within them suggest that occasional strong outbursts of material have occurred in the past.

Announced on November 29, these findings illustrate the combined imaging power of two of astronomy’s most valuable and cutting-edge tools: Hubble and the newly-updated VLA. The video below shows how it was all done… check it out.

Read more on the NRAO press release here.

Image credits: NASA, ESA, S. Baum and C. O’Dea (RIT), R. Perley and W. Cotton (NRAO/AUI/NSF), and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA). Source: NRAO.

NASA Jets Buzz The Capitol


Earlier today, Thursday, April 5,  two NASA T-38 jets passed over the Washington, DC metropolitan area, during planned training and photographic  flights. The photo above by Paul E. Alers shows the jets flying over the U.S. Capitol building.

See this and more images from the flyby on NASA HQ Photo’s Flickr page here.

Made by Northrop and powered by two afterburning General Electric J85 engines, a T-38 can fly supersonic up to Mach 1.6 and soar above 40,000 feet, about 10,000 feet higher than airliners typically cruise. The plane can wrench its pilots through more than seven Gs, or seven times the force of gravity.

A pair of T-38s fly in formation over Galveston Beach in Texas, showing some of the aerobatic abilities of the T-38. (Photo courtesy of Story Musgrave)

“The T-38 is a great aircraft for what we need at NASA because it’s fast, it’s high-performance and it’s very simple,”  says Terry Virts, who flew as the pilot of STS-130 aboard shuttle Endeavour. “It’s safe and it’s known. So compared to other airplanes, it’s definitely one of the best.”

Today the  T-38 training jets flew approximately 1,500 feet above Washington between 9:30 and 11 a.m. EDT. The April 5 flights were intended to capture photographic imagery.

Check out a great article about NASA’s T-38s here.

World-wide Campaign Sheds New Light on Nature’s “LHC”

In a manner somewhat like the formation of an alliance to defeat Darth Vader’s Death Star, more than a decade ago astronomers formed the Whole Earth Blazar Telescope consortium to understand Nature’s Death Ray Gun (a.k.a. blazars). And contrary to its at-death’s-door sounding name, the GASP has proved crucial to unraveling the secrets of how Nature’s “LHC” works.

“As the universe’s biggest accelerators, blazar jets are important to understand,” said Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (KIPAC) Research Fellow Masaaki Hayashida, corresponding author on the recent paper presenting the new results with KIPAC Astrophysicist Greg Madejski. “But how they are produced and how they are structured is not well understood. We’re still looking to understand the basics.”

Blazars dominate the gamma-ray sky, discrete spots on the dark backdrop of the universe. As nearby matter falls into the supermassive black hole at the center of a blazar, “feeding” the black hole, it sprays some of this energy back out into the universe as a jet of particles.

Researchers had previously theorized that such jets are held together by strong magnetic field tendrils, while the jet’s light is created by particles spiraling around these wisp-thin magnetic field “lines”.

Yet, until now, the details have been relatively poorly understood. The recent study upsets the prevailing understanding of the jet’s structure, revealing new insight into these mysterious yet mighty beasts.

“This work is a significant step toward understanding the physics of these jets,” said KIPAC Director Roger Blandford. “It’s this type of observation that is going to make it possible for us to figure out their anatomy.”

Over a full year of observations, the researchers focused on one particular blazar jet, 3C279, located in the constellation Virgo, monitoring it in many different wavebands: gamma-ray, X-ray, optical, infrared and radio. Blazars flicker continuously, and researchers expected continual changes in all wavebands. Midway through the year, however, researchers observed a spectacular change in the jet’s optical and gamma-ray emission: a 20-day-long flare in gamma rays was accompanied by a dramatic change in the jet’s optical light.

Although most optical light is unpolarized – consisting of light with an equal mix of all polarizations – the extreme bending of energetic particles around a magnetic field line can polarize light. During the 20-day gamma-ray flare, optical light from the jet changed its polarization. This temporal connection between changes in the gamma-ray light and changes in the optical polarization suggests that light in both wavebands is created in the same part of the jet; during those 20 days, something in the local environment changed to cause both the optical and gamma-ray light to vary.

“We have a fairly good idea of where in the jet optical light is created; now that we know the gamma rays and optical light are created in the same place, we can for the first time determine where the gamma rays come from,” said Hayashida.

This knowledge has far-reaching implications about how a supermassive black hole produces polar jets. The great majority of energy released in a jet escapes in the form of gamma rays, and researchers previously thought that all of this energy must be released near the black hole, close to where the matter flowing into the black hole gives up its energy in the first place. Yet the new results suggest that – like optical light – the gamma rays are emitted relatively far from the black hole. This, Hayashida and Madejski said, in turn suggests that the magnetic field lines must somehow help the energy travel far from the black hole before it is released in the form of gamma rays.

“What we found was very different from what we were expecting,” said Madejski. “The data suggest that gamma rays are produced not one or two light days from the black hole [as was expected] but closer to one light year. That’s surprising.”

In addition to revealing where in the jet light is produced, the gradual change of the optical light’s polarization also reveals something unexpected about the overall shape of the jet: the jet appears to curve as it travels away from the black hole.

“At one point during a gamma-ray flare, the polarization rotated about 180 degrees as the intensity of the light changed,” said Hayashida. “This suggests that the whole jet curves.”

This new understanding of the inner workings and construction of a blazar jet requires a new working model of the jet’s structure, one in which the jet curves dramatically and the most energetic light originates far from the black hole. This, Madejski said, is where theorists come in. “Our study poses a very important challenge to theorists: how would you construct a jet that could potentially be carrying energy so far from the black hole? And how could we then detect that? Taking the magnetic field lines into account is not simple. Related calculations are difficult to do analytically, and must be solved with extremely complex numerical schemes.”

Theorist Jonathan McKinney, a Stanford University Einstein Fellow and expert on the formation of magnetized jets, agrees that the results pose as many questions as they answer. “There’s been a long-time controversy about these jets – about exactly where the gamma-ray emission is coming from. This work constrains the types of jet models that are possible,” said McKinney, who is unassociated with the recent study. “From a theoretician’s point of view, I’m excited because it means we need to rethink our models.”

As theorists consider how the new observations fit models of how jets work, Hayashida, Madejski and other members of the research team will continue to gather more data. “There’s a clear need to conduct such observations across all types of light to understand this better,” said Madejski. “It takes a massive amount of coordination to accomplish this type of study, which included more than 250 scientists and data from about 20 telescopes. But it’s worth it.”

With this and future multi-wavelength studies, theorists will have new insight with which to craft models of how the universe’s biggest accelerators work. Darth Vader has been denied all access to these research results.

Sources: DOE/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory Press Release, a paper in the 18 February, 2010 issue of Nature.

Hinode Discovers the Sun’s Hidden Sparkle


Blinking spots of intense light are being observed all over the lower atmosphere of the Sun. Not just in the active regions, but in polar regions, quiet regions, sunspots, coronal holes and loops. These small explosions fire elegant jets of hot solar matter into space, generating X-rays as they go. Although X-ray jets are known to have existed for many years, the Japanese Hinode observatory is seeing these small flares with unprecedented clarity, showing us that X-ray jets may yet hold the answers to some of the most puzzling questions about the Sun and its hot corona.

Although a comparatively small mission (weighing 875 kg and operating just three instruments), Hinode is showing the world some stunning high resolution pictures of our nearest star. In Earth orbit and kitted out with an optical telescope (the Solar Optical Telescope, SOT), Extreme ultraviolet Imaging Spectrometer (EIS) and an X-Ray Telescope (XRT), the light emitted from the Sun can be split into its component optical, ultraviolet and X-ray wavelengths. This in itself is not new, but never before has mankind been able to view the Sun in such detail.

It is widely believed that the violent, churning solar surface may be the root cause of accelerating the solar wind (blasting hot solar particles into space at a mind-blowing 1.6 million kilometers per hour) and heating the million plus degree solar atmosphere. But the small-scale processes close to the Sun driving the whole system are only just beginning to come into focus.

Up until now, small-scale turbulent processes have been impossible to observe. Generally, any feature below 1000 km in size has remained undetected. Much like trying to follow a golf ball in flight from 200 meters away, it is very difficult (try it!). Compare this with Hinode, the same golf ball can be resolved by the SOT instrument from nearly 2000 km away. That’s one powerful telescope!

The limit of observable solar features has now been lifted. The SOT can resolve the fine structure of the solar surface to 180 km, this is an obvious improvement. Also, the EIS and XRT can capture images very quickly, one per second. The SOT can produce hi-res pictures every 5 minutes. Therefore, fast, explosive events such as flares can be tracked easier.

Putting this new technology to the test, a team led by Jonathan Cirtain, a solar physicist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Alabama, has unveiled new results from research with the XRT instrument. X-ray jets in the highly dynamic chromosphere and lower corona appear to occur with greater regularity than previously thought.

X-ray jets are very important to solar physicists. As magnetic field lines are forced together, snap, and form new configurations, vast quantities of heat and light are generated in the form of a “microflare”. Although these are small events on a solar scale, they still generate huge amounts of energy, heating solar plasma to over 2 million Kelvin, create spurts of X-ray emitting plasma jets and generate waves. This is all very interesting, but why are jets so important?

The solar atmosphere (or corona) is hot. In fact, very hot. Actually, it is too hot. What I’m trying to say is that measurements of coronal particles tell us the atmosphere of the Sun is actually hotter than the Suns surface. Traditional thinking would suggest that this is wrong; all sorts of physical laws would be violated. The air around a light bulb isn’t hotter than the bulb itself, the heat from an object will decrease the further away you measure the temperature (obvious really). If you’re cold, you don’t move away from the fire, you get closer to it!

The Sun is different. Through interactions near the surface of the Sun between plasma and magnetic flux (a field known as “magnetohydrodynamics” – magneto = magnetic, hydro = fluid, dynamics = motion: “magnetic-fluid-motion” in plain English, or “MHD” for short), MHD waves are able to propagate and heat up the plasma. The MHD waves under scrutiny are known as “Alfvén wavesâ€? (named after Hannes Alfvén, 1908-1995, the plasma physics supremo) which, theoretically, carry enough energy from the Sun to heat the solar corona hotter than the solar surface. The one thing that has dogged the solar community for the last half a century is: how are Alfvén waves produced? Solar flares have always been a candidate as a source, but observation suggested that there wasn’t enough flares to generate enough waves. But now, with advanced optics used by Hinode, many small-scale events appear to be common… bringing us back to our X-ray jets…

Previously, only the largest X-ray jets have been observed, putting this phenomenon at the bottom of the priority list. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center group has now turned this idea on its head by observing hundreds of jet events each and every day:

“We now see that jets happen all the time, as often as 240 times a day. They appear at all latitudes, within coronal holes, inside sunspot groups, out in the middle of nowhere–in short, wherever we look on the sun we find these jets. They are a major form of solar activity” – Jonathan Cirtain, Marshall Space Flight Center.

So, this little solar probe has very quickly changed our views on solar physics. Launched on September 23, 2006, by a consortium of countries including Japan, USA and Europe, Hinode has already revolutionized our thinking about how the Sun works. Not only looking deep into the chaotic processes in the solar chromosphere, it is also finding new sources where Alfvén waves may be generated. Jets are now confirmed as common events that occur all over the Sun. Could they provide the corona with enough Alfvén waves to heat the Sun’s corona more than the Sun itself? I don’t know. But what I do know is, the sight of solar jets flashing to life in these movies is awesome, especially as you see the jet launch into space from the original flash. This is also a very good time to be seeing this amazing phenomenon, as Jonathan Cirtain points out the site of solar jets reminds him of “the twinkle of Christmas lights, randomly oriented. It’s very pretty”. Even the Sun is getting festive.