Supermassive Black Hole Caught Playing Cosmic Billiards in New Video

First Posted: May 28, 2015 01:32 PM EDT

Scientists have discovered something startling just outside a supermassive black hole. They've spotted a rear-end collision between two high-speed knots of ejected matter from the black hole as they pieced together a time-lapse movie of a plasma jet blasted from a black hole.

This latest finding actually offers insights into the behavior of "light-saber-like" jets that are so energized that they appear to zoom out of black holes at speeds several times the speed of light. This "superluminal" motion is an optical illusion due to the very fast real speed of the plasma, which is close to the universal maximum of the speed of light.

These extragalactic jets aren't well understood. They appear to transport energetic plasma in a confined beam from the active nucleus of the host galaxy. This new analysis, though, suggests that shocks produced by collisions within the jet further accelerate particles and brighten the regions of colliding material.

It's not uncommon to see knots of material in jets ejected from gravitationally compact objects. It is rare, though, that scientists have seen this with optical telescopes so far out from a black hole thousands of light-years away.

The jet from the galaxy, NGC 3862, has a string-like structure of glowing knots of material. In this case, the researchers used telescopes to examine the jet motions more closely. They spotted a fast knot with an apparent speed of seven times the speed of light catch up with the end of a slower moving knot along the string.

"Something like these has never been seen before in an extragalactic jet," said Eileen Meyer, one of the researchers, in a news release. "This will allow us a very rare opportunity to see how the kinetic energy of the collision is dissipated into radiation."

The findings reveal a bit more about these objects and could help inform future studies.

The findings are published in the journal Nature.

Want to see it for yourself? Check out the video below, courtesy of YouTube.

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