Supermassive Black Hole Jets

Black hole jet stream
This is an illustration of the binary system XTE J1550-564, showing matter from a star being pulled into a massive black hole and a jet stream shooting out from it.

Scientists at John Hopkins University, led by Dr. Sjoert van Velzen, have recently observed a rapid stream of gas (called jets) in galaxy PGC 432, about 290 million light years away. These jets were previously a mysterious puzzle in how they function, but after recent observations. we are closer to knowing more about this phenomenon.

Astrophysical jets are linear structures associated with stars and galaxies. They span about seven orders of magnitude in size. The larger jets are about 100 times the size of our galaxy and are the largest single known objects in the universe. Jets occur when parts of a star fall into a supermassive black hole, yielding a burst of light.

The results of Dr. Velzen and his researchers are based on radio observations that were tracking a star getting ripped apart by a supermassive black hole in the center of PGC 432. For the first time ever, astronomers were able to show that this burst is followed by a radio signal from the matter that was able to escape the black hole by traveling away in a jetted outflow nearly at the speed of light.

The event was first noticed by the All Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae and then by the Arcminute Microkelvin Imager Large Array in Cambridge, UK. Jets were usually observed in association with black holes but their mechanism was an unknown mystery. Most supermassive black holes are fed a constant diet of gas which leads to jets living for millions of years. The jet from PGC 432 was acting quite differently. Observations showed that after a brief injection of energy, the jet produced short and spectacular radio fireworks.

All these new findings suggest jets could be more common than previously thought and that previous observations were not sensitive enough to detect them. This was also the first time astronomers succeeded in witnessing a supermassive black hole engulf a star.

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