Astronomers have produced a detailed image of a massive eruption from the nearest supermassive black hole feeding the size of 16 full moons in the sky.
The image, which captures radio emissions from material ejected from the black hole at nearly the speed of light, shows giant lobes of plasma stretching more than a million light-years from the center of its home galaxy, Centaurus A.
Centaurus A, about 12 million light years from Earth, is the fifth brightest galaxy in the sky as seen from our planet. At its center is the closest actively feeding black hole to our planet, a monster with a mass of 55 million suns. The black hole gobbles up gas, dust, and other materials in its vicinity, then expels it in powerful jets that spread out into intergalactic space, creating the massive bubbles that can be seen in this image.
New images: a powerful jet emerges from a black hole in unprecedented detail
The galaxy itself occupies only a very small patch in the center of the image. The background points are not stars, but other similar galaxies, but much more distant. The points in the foreground are stars in our own galaxy, the Milky Way.
The image was captured with the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) telescope in the Western Australian outback, a quiet place with no radio interference and a wide field of view.
The image consists of radio, optical and X-ray observations, Benjamin McKinley, an astronomer at Curtin University in Australia and lead author of a new study describing the eruption, said in a statement.
The radio plasma emitted from the black hole is shown in blue and appears to be interacting with hot X-ray emitting gas (orange) and cold neutral hydrogen (violet). The red tones reveal the so-called H-alpha spectral lines characteristic of hydrogen that is losing electrons.
“Previous radio observations could not handle the extreme brightness of the jets and the details of the larger area surrounding the galaxy were distorted, but our new image overcomes these limitations,” McKinley said.
McKinley said the galaxy appears brightest at the center, where energy is concentrated and where it is most active. As the energy dissipates towards the outskirts of the galaxy, the galactic matter appears weaker.
Astrophysicist Massimo Gaspari, from Italy’s National Institute of Astrophysics, said the study corroborated a novel theory known as “haotic cold accretion” (CCA), which is emerging in different fields.
“In this model, clouds of cold gas condense in the galactic halo and rain down on the central regions, fueling the supermassive black hole,” Gaspari said in the statement. “Triggered by this shower, the black hole reacts vigorously by hurling energy back through radio jets that inflate the spectacular lobes we see in the image. This study is one of the first to probe CCA’s ‘climate’ in such detail. multiphase range of scales “.
The study was published on Thursday (December 23) in the journal Nature Astronomy.
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