NASA Hubble Space Telescope Reveals Black Hole Ejecting Superheated Jets (Video)

First Posted: Aug 23, 2013 07:57 AM EDT

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has revealed a little bit more about a supermassive black hole. It's detected a 5,000-light-year-long jet of superheated gas being ejected from this black hole in the center of the giant elliptical galaxy M87. Now, scientists have assembled time-lapse movies of this vortex of gas.

Matter drawn completely into a black hole cannot escape its enormous gravitational pull. Yet most material isn't completely sucked in. Instead, it first joins an orbiting region known as an accretion disk, which circles the black hole. Magnetic fields surrounding the black hole are thought to entrain some of this ionized gas and eject it as very high-velocity jets. Studying these jets can teach astronomers a little bit more about the black holes in our universe, which is important for understanding galaxy evolution.

"Central supermassive black holes are a key component in all big galaxies," said Eileen T. Meyer of the Space Telescope Science Institute in a news release. "Most of these black holes are believed to have gone through an active phase, and black-hole-powered jets from this active phase play a key role in the evolution of galaxies. By studying the details of this process in the nearest galaxy with an optical jet, we can hope to learn more about galaxy formation and black hole physics in general."

For the first time, the new movies show astronomers that the jet's river of plasma actually travels in a spiral motion as it's ejected. This motion is considered to be strong evidence that the plasma is traveling along a magnetic field. This field is probably coiled like a helix and arises from the spinning accretion disk of material around the black hole.

In fact, there's strong evidence for this helical structure. In the outer part of the M87 jet, one bright gas clump, called knot B, appears to zigzag, as if it were moving along a spiral path. Several other gas clumps along the jet also appear to loop around the invisible structure.

"The jet structure is very clumpy. Is this a ballistic effect, like cannonballs fired sequentially from a cannon?" asked Meyer in a news release. "Or is there some particularly interesting physics going on, such as a shock that is magnetically driven?

It turns out that it's a little bit of each. The researchers found that the clumps are very dynamic sources, which showed them a little bit more about how these black holes function.

The findings reveal a little bit more about supermassive black holes and show exactly how they might impact their surroundings. Although it's too early to determine whether all black holes function like this one, astronomers are looking forward to future studies that may lead to the answer.

The findings are published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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

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