Scientists spotted jets of hot gas whizzing out of a supermassive black hole at the heart of a nearby galaxy

centaurus A galaxy
A composite image of Centaurus A, revealing plasma jets emanating from the galaxy’s central black hole.

At the heart of every galaxy lies a supermassive black hole, which consumes everything that comes within reach of its gravitational pull – almost everything, that is.

Scientists have spotted plasma jets – streams of energy and hot matter – fleeing the core of certain black holes at one-third the speed of light. Researchers still aren’t certain how these jets form or escape celestial voids. But a new study gives astronomers more insight into the relationship between jets and their black hole parents.

Researchers at the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration – a group that reconstructed the first-ever image of a black hole two years ago – imaged plasma jets spewing from a black hole at the center of the Centaurus A galaxy, about 13 million light-years from Earth.

Their observations reveal that all jets closely resemble one another, regardless of their black hole’s mass. The jets are merely scaled in size, meaning smaller jets come from smaller black holes.

black hole centaurus A
A reconstructed image of a plasma jet shooting from the black hole at the center of Centaurus A.

Even the smallest of these jets can spread out far across the universe, though.

“They disperse out to form gigantic bubbles of hot gas that are 100,000 light-years in size,” Michael Janssen, an astronomer with the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy and Radboud University and lead author of the new study, told Insider.

Up close and personal with a supermassive black hole

To image the Centaurus A jet, Janssen’s team relied on data collected in April 2017 by eight radio telescopes synced up across the globe, forming one Earth-sized instrument. So the image is a reconstructed view, not a photograph.

“Think of looking into a mirror you’ve smashed to pieces,” Janssen said. “Each shard can show you a little bit of your face. By using the limited information you get from each shard, you can piece together what you look like.”

black hole jet
A view of a plasma jet coming out of the black hole at the center of the Messier 87 galaxy.

This isn’t the first time scientists have looked at plasma jets from a black hole. In 2011, an international team also imaged Centaurus A’s jets, but the new images are ten times more accurate and 16 times sharper than previous ones.

“We hit a magnification factor of 1 billion,” Janssen said. “We’re looking at the jet in unprecedented resolution immediately at the region where it’s just being born and launched by the black hole.”

The sharpness helped researchers compare jets from Centaurus A’s black hole – which is 55 million times more massive than our sun – to those escaping from the Messier 87 galaxy, about 54 million light-years from Earth. The Messier 87 black hole is 6.5 billion times more massive than the sun.

The researchers also compared Centaurus A’s jets to those from other black holes of different masses.

Their findings ultimately support the idea that smaller black holes are scaled-down versions of their more massive counterparts – and act the same way regardless of their mass or how quickly they accumulate matter and energy.

Magnetic fields could drive these high-speed jets

This image released Wednesday, April 10, 2019, by Event Horizon Telescope shows a black hole. Scientists revealed the first image ever made of a black hole after assembling data gathered by a network of radio telescopes around the world. (Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration/Maunakea Observatories via AP)
The first image ever made of a black hole, released by Event Horizon Telescope on April 10, 2019.

Supermassive black holes form when stars collapse in on themselves at the end of their life cycles.

Black holes spin so quickly that they distort space-time, and their gravity pulls in everything nearby. Because even light can’t escape, these forces create a unique shadow in the form of a perfect circle at the black hole’s center. The edge of this circle is known as the event horizon.

That gravitational pull twists light coming from the cloud of gas, dust, and space detritus orbiting the black hole’s center – what’s known as the accretion disk.

“Black holes feed off this accretion disk,” Janssen said. “But not all particles get swallowed up. Some get ejected by the black hole and escape in the form of these jets.”

black hole
A representation of a black hole.

Scientists haven’t figured out yet what drives these streams of escapee particles, but Janssen suggests that magnetic fields located at the edges of a black hole help accelerate jets.

(Two March studies by other members of the Event Horizon Telescope team found evidence of a magnetic field near the Messier 87 black hole’s event horizon.)

“As the black hole spins, these magnetic fields start being dragged around and get spun into a corkscrew structure,” Janssen said.

All the while, the coiling magnetic field collects incoming particles. Then, the field springs outward and shoots out hot gas and energy away from the black hole. The strength of the magnetic field is enough to help some particles resist a black hole’s gravity.

According to Janssen, the resulting jets are mindbogglingly large.

“If you could see these jets, and the Centaurus A black hole from Earth, the black hole would appear as large as an apple on the surface of the moon,” he said, “while the jets would be 16 times as wide as the moon itself.”

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This animation shows just how big supermassive black holes can get

  • Black holes are the densest objects in the universe, which gives them a powerful gravitational pull on the space around them.
  • They can be millions of times larger than suns and planets, or as small as a city.
  • Using just gravity, black holes can rip entire planets and stars apart – but how powerful they are depends on how much mass is inside.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: The cosmos can be a dangerous place. Take black holes, for example. They’re some of the most violent objects in our universe, powerful enough to rip entire stars to pieces.

Their secret weapon is gravity. You see, the more mass you can shrink into a small space, the stronger your gravitational force will become. To make Earth into a black hole, for instance, you’d have to shrink it to less than an inch across.

But real black holes are much larger than that and pack way more mass than Earth. Here’s just how big black holes can really get.

There are three common types of black holes. The smallest are stellar black holes, which form after a giant star explodes and collapses in on itself, like this one, which measures about 40 miles across, roughly three times the length of Manhattan. But in that small space is enough mass to equal 11 of our suns.

In another galaxy, called M33, there’s a black hole that is 58 miles across and packs as much mass as 15.7 suns inside.

Up next are the intermediate-mass black holes, like this one. At 1,460 miles across, it’s nearly large enough to stretch from Florida to Maine and, according to some calculations, contains the mass of 400 suns.

At this point, black holes start to get pretty big compared to Earth, but it’s still nothing when you consider the sheer mass they carry. Take this black hole, for example. It’s nearly twice the size of Jupiter, spanning a region about 172,000 miles wide, but inside is as much mass as 47,000 suns.

But these black holes are nothing compared to supermassive black holes, like Sagittarius A*, which lives at the center of our Milky Way galaxy. It covers a region about 14.6 million miles in diameter. That’s roughly 168 Jupiters across, and inside is the same amount of mass as 4 million suns combined. Now that may sound big, but Sagittarius A* is small compared to other supermassive black holes.

Take the one at the center of our neighbor the Andromeda galaxy, which has a diameter of 516 million miles, larger than Jupiter’s orbit, and contains enough mass to equal that of 140 million suns. We’re finally getting to some of the largest black holes in the universe, and yet we haven’t reached one that surpasses the size of our solar system.

So let’s look at the supermassive black hole at the center of the Sombrero galaxy. It measures 2 billion miles across, so it would stretch further than Uranus’ orbit, and it has about the same mass as 660 million suns.

And the supermassive black hole at the center of Messier 87 is so huge that astronomers could see it from 55 million light-years away. It’s 24 billion miles across and contains the same mass as 6 1/2 billion suns. But this supermassive black hole, as large as it is, could still fit within our solar system with plenty of room to spare.

So we have to look at one of the most massive of all supermassive black holes. It has a diameter of about 78 billion miles. For perspective, that’s about 40% the size of our solar system, according to some estimates. And it’s estimated to be about 21 billion times the mass of our sun.

So there you have it, black holes can be millions of times larger than suns and planets or as small as a city. It all depends on how much mass is inside. Turns out, when it comes to the cosmos, size isn’t the only thing that matters.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in May 2019.

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