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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NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope photographed colliding galaxies after recovering from a month-long mystery glitch

hubble telescope in space above earth clouds
The Hubble Space Telescope hovers at the boundary of Earth and space in this picture, taken after Hubble’s second servicing mission in 1997.

The Hubble Space Telescope is back, and NASA has the pictures to prove it.

The Earth-orbiting observatory went offline on June 13 and stayed that way for more than a month while engineers struggled to identify a mysterious glitch. NASA still hasn’t announced what exactly caused the problem, but the agency’s engineers managed to bring Hubble back online by activating some of its backup hardware on Thursday.

“I was quite worried,” NASA Associate Administrator Thomas Zurbuchen said in a Friday video interview with Nzinga Tull, who led the Hubble team through troubleshooting. “We all knew this was riskier than we normally do.”

Hubble slowly powered up its science instruments again over the weekend and conducted system check-outs to make sure everything still worked. Then it snapped its first images since the whole debacle started.

The telescope focused its lens on a set of unusual galaxies on Saturday. One of its new images shows a pair of galaxies slowly colliding. The other image shows a spiral galaxy with long, extended arms. Most spiral galaxies have an even number of arms, but this one only has three.

galaxies black and white photos from hubble space telescope
Hubble’s first images after recovering from a month-long glitch show some unusual galaxies.

Hubble is also observing Jupiter’s northern and southern lights, or auroras, as well as tight clusters of stars. NASA hasn’t shared images from those observations yet.

“I’m thrilled to see that Hubble has its eye back on the universe, once again capturing the kind of images that have intrigued and inspired us for decades,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a press release. “This is a moment to celebrate the success of a team truly dedicated to the mission. Through their efforts, Hubble will continue its 32nd year of discovery, and we will continue to learn from the observatory’s transformational vision.”

A mysterious glitch that took a month to fix

hubble space telescope orbiting earth
The Hubble Space Telescope in orbit above Earth.

Hubble, the world’s most powerful space telescope, launched into orbit in 1990. It has photographed the births and deaths of stars, spotted new moons circling Pluto, and tracked two interstellar objects zipping through our solar system. Its observations have allowed astronomers to calculate the age and expansion of the universe and to peer at galaxies formed shortly after the Big Bang.

But the telescope’s payload computer suddenly stopped working on June 13. That computer, built in the 1980s, is like Hubble’s brain – it controls and monitors all the science instruments on the spacecraft. Engineers tried and failed to bring it back online several times. Eventually, after running more diagnostic tests, they realized that the computer wasn’t the problem at all – some other hardware on the spacecraft was causing the shutdown.

nzinga tull sits at computer in nasa control room working on hubble space telescope
Nzinga Tull, Hubble systems anomaly response manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, works in the control room July 15 to restore Hubble to full science operations.

It’s still not totally clear which piece of hardware was the culprit. Engineers suspect that a failsafe on the telescope’s Power Control Unit (PCU) instructed the payload computer to shut down. The PCU could have been sending the wrong voltage of electricity to the computer, or the failsafe itself could have been malfunctioning.

NASA was prepared for issues like this. Each piece of Hubble’s hardware has a twin pre-installed on the telescope in case it fails. So engineers switched all the faulty parts to that backup hardware. Now the telescope is back in full observation mode.

“I feel super excited and relieved,” Tull said after making the hardware switch. “Glad to have good news to share.”

Though NASA has fixed the glitch, it’s a sign that Hubble’s age may be starting to interfere with its science. The telescope hasn’t been upgraded since 2009, and some of its hardware is more than 30 years old.

“This is an older machine, and it’s kind of telling us: Look, I’m getting a little bit old here, right? It’s talking to us,” Zurbuchen said on Friday. “Despite that, more science is ahead, and we’re excited about it.”

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