Scientists spot jets of energy shooting ‘at speed of light’ from black hole

Astronomers studying the supermassive black hole at the heart of a galaxy some 53.49 million light years away say they have made “groundbreaking” discoveries.

While most matter captured by the massive gravitational pull of a black hole is pulled inward, some of the surrounding particles are blown out in the opposite direction in jets.

Astronomers still don't fully understand how or why this happens.

But now an international team of scientists has measured for the first time these incredibly powerful jets of energy, which shoot at almost the speed of light across the entire Messier 87 [M87] galaxy.

“These jets manage to transport energy released by the black hole out to scales larger than the host galaxy, like a huge power cord”, says co-author Sera Markoff, from the University of Amsterdam

Kazuhiro Hada, an astronomer based at Japan’s National Astronomical Observatory, is another of the co-authors of the new research.

He explains in the scientific journal Astrophysical Journal Letters how his team extracted unprecedented new information from the 2019 image of the black hole captured by the Event Horizon Telescope [EHT].

“We knew that the first direct image of a black hole would be groundbreaking,” he says. “But to get the most out of this remarkable image, we need to know everything we can about the black hole’s behaviour at that time by observing over the entire electromagnetic spectrum.”

The researchers supplemented their original observation with data information from 19 observatories, using imagery from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope (HST), Chandra X-ray Observatory, the Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory, the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR), Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope as well as the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT).

Beginning with the EHT’s now iconic image of M87, a new video from NASA takes viewers on a unique journey through the data from each telescope.

“The immense gravitational pull of a supermassive black hole can power jets of particles that travel at almost the speed of light across vast distances,” a NASA press statement said.

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M87’s jets produce energy spanning the entire electromagnetic spectrum, from radio waves to visible light to gamma rays.

By observing radiation beyond the range of visible light the researchers were able to construct a unique electromagnetic fingerprint for the M87 black hole.

“Identifying this pattern gives crucial insight into a black hole’s properties (for example, its spin and energy output)” says NASA, “but this is a challenge because the pattern changes with time”.

“The combination of data from these telescopes and current (and future) EHT observations, will allow scientists to conduct important lines of investigation into some of astrophysics’ most significant and challenging fields of study.”

“With the release of these data, combined with the resumption of observing and an improved EHT, we know many exciting new results are on the horizon, co-author Mislav Baloković of Yale University, added in the NASA release.

“This incredible set of observations includes many of the world’s best telescopes,” co-author Juan Carlos Algaba of the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, said.

“This is a wonderful example of astronomers around the world working together in the pursuit of science.”

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