In a remarkable first-of-its-kind image, astronomers have captured a black hole at the center of a distant galaxy expelling a high-energy jet of matter out into the cosmos.
The jet is longer than the galaxy that contains it, stretching for 5,000 light-years. Scientists have known that black holes emanate jets, but this image is the first to show the jet’s base connecting to the black hole’s accretion disk, or the collection of matter that releases radiation as it’s sucked inside the void.
“Now we can start to address questions such as how matter is captured by a black hole, and how it sometimes manages to escape,” says Kazunori Akiyama, a co-author of the study and an astrophysicist at MIT.
Black holes, which have a tremendously strong gravitational pull, suck in anything in their vicinity, including light. But they can also shoot out jets of matter at nearly light speed, though scientists still don’t know why this happens.
“This is an amazing result,” Sasha Tchekhovskoy, an astrophysicist who studies black holes at Northwestern University, tells Sky & Telescope.
The researchers hope the findings, published in the journal Nature, can help answer this and other questions about these dark abysses in space. The new image “helps to better understand the complicated physics around black holes, how jets are launched and accelerated and how matter inflow into the black hole and matter outflow are related,” says Thomas Krichbaum, a co-author of the study and an astrophysicist at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Germany.