spaceSpace and Physics

The Event Horizon Telescope Has Peered Right Into The Very Heart Of A Quasar


Dr. Alfredo Carpineti

Senior Staff Writer & Space Correspondent

clockApr 7 2020, 21:14 UTC

Illustration of multiwavelength 3C 279 jet structure in April 2017 observed by different radio telescope arrays.  J.Y. Kim (MPIfR), Boston University Blazar Program (VLBA and GMVA), and Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration

Almost a year since the historical announcement of the first image of a supermassive black hole, the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) collaboration has produced new science from the data, zooming into the very core of quasar 3C 279.

Galaxies experience a quasar phase when the supermassive black hole at their core goes through a period of extreme luminosity. This is usually accompanied by the release of energetic jets of particles moving at close to the speed of light.


The exquisite resolution of the EHT allowed the team to see features about half of a light-year across – an incredible achievement considering the quasar is 5 billion light-years away. That’s like seeing an orange on the surface of the Moon. The image shows that the normally straight jet has an unexpected twisted shape at its base. The findings are reported in Astronomy & Astrophysics

There are also peculiar structures perpendicular to the jet. These are potentially the poles of the accretion disk that surround the black hole and from which the jet is ejected. 

"We knew that every time you open a new window to the Universe you can find something new. Here, where we expected to find the region where the jet forms by going to the sharpest image possible, we find a kind of perpendicular structure. This is like finding a very different shape by opening the smallest Matryoshka doll," lead author Jae-Young Kim, a researcher at Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, said in a statement.


The jet is moving at a whopping 99.5 percent of the speed of light. Due to a quirk in geometry though, the system is in a relativity-breaking optical illusion. The jet is moving toward us at an angle and appears to be covering galactic distances at about 20 times the speed of light, but it isn't. 

"Last year we could present the first image of the shadow of a black hole. Now we see unexpected changes in the shape of the jet in 3C 279, and we are not done yet. As we told last year: this is just the beginning," added Anton Zensus, director at the MPIfR and chair of the EHT Collaboration Board.

The incredible power of the EHT comes from the coordinated use of many radio telescopes on Earth. Together they act as a single virtual telescope the size of the whole planet. The EHT has received new funding last year and more observatories are being added to the fold.


"The EHT array is always improving," Shep Doeleman, the EHT founding director, added. "These new quasar results demonstrate that the unique EHT capabilities can address a wide range of science questions, which will only grow as we continue to add new telescopes to the array. Our team is now working on a next-generation EHT array that will greatly sharpen the focus on black holes and allow us to make the first black hole movies."

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