Science fiction loves gigantic, planet-destroying energy beams, but the reality is often more terrifying than fiction. And not even Starkiller Base can compete with the power of supermassive black holes.
The amazing image above was taken by NASA’s Chandra space telescope. It shows in beautiful clarity the black hole’s jet piercing through intergalactic space, exciting gas in its wake. The jet is more than 300,000 light-years long, which is three times the size of the Milky Way.
The supermassive black hole is in an elliptical galaxy called Pictor A, which is located 500 million light-years from Earth. Astronomers hope to use images like this to better understand how the jets form and become so focused.
When a supermassive black hole is accreting material, the powerful magnetic fields generated by the system are thought to fling some particles to almost the speed of light. The accelerated charged particles (usually protons and electrons) ionize their surroundings and the jet ends up creating spectacular bubbles of hot gas that emit strong radio waves into the universe.
Although this is by far the most likely scenario for how the jets form, the electrons lose energy by emitting X-rays, so they must be constantly re-accelerated somehow throughout the jet.
The composite image shows the X-ray image detected by Chandra combined with the radio emissions detected by the Australia Telescope Compact Array. The image was obtained over 15 years by combining various observations made by Chandra. The jet, two large radio lobes, and a hotspot area are clearly visible. The hotspot is caused by shock waves near the tip of the jet.
The image also shows a counter jet (on the left). It appears significantly fainter than the main one, but it’s only an optical effect. The apparent difference is most likely due to the fact that the jet is moving away from the direction of motion.
A paper illustrating the results will be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, and is available online on Arxiv.