Astronomers Might Have Worked Out How The Jets Of Supermassive Black Holes Form

M87 with the jet clearly showing as seen by Hubble. NASA/ESA/HST

Supermassive black holes are not just cosmic behemoths when it comes to mass, weighing millions to billions times more than our Sun. They are also responsible for the emission of powerful jets, which can often stretch up to millions of light-years across intergalactic space.

The exact mechanism for the formation of jets is not clear, so to solve this mystery researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy have taken a close look at M87, a nearby galaxy with an active supermassive black hole.

The study, published in Astronomy & Astrophysics, points the finger at the accretion disk, the donut of material that orbits closely to the supermassive black hole. The team thinks that turbulent processes, due to magnetic fields, are responsible for the cosmic jets.

“There are good reasons to think that the surface of the accretion disk behaves similar to the surface of the Sun – bubbling hot gas with ongoing magnetic activity such as reconnection and flares,” co-author Christian Fendt, from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA) in Heidelberg, said in a statement.

The radio data was collected by the Very Long Baseline Array for their MOJAVE project, and when the team took a second look at it, they came to the conclusion that magnetic phenomena that propelled the material of the jets was the best explanation for the data.

“We re-analyzed these data providing us with an insight into the complex processes connecting the jet and the accretion disk of M87,” lead author Silke Britzen from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, added. “To our knowledge, this is the first time that processes related to the launching and loading of the jet can be investigated”

M87 was recently observed by another ambitious project. It was one of the targets of the Event Horizon Telescope, a project that could have snapped the first image of the black hole at the center of the Milky Way, Sagittarius A*. The black hole at the center of M87 is a 1,000 times bigger and the galaxy is about 53 million light-years away, but both supermassive black holes appear the same size in the sky. When those observations are analyzed, we might not only have a picture of the quiet Sagittarius A*, we might also understand a lot more about active supermassive black holes.

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