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Get a “close-up” of the energy jet from a black hole

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Updated:04/09/2020 02: 10h

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Just a year ago, an international collaboration of scientists went down in history by achieving the first image of a black hole. But that photograph of an orange ring around a dark gloomy area was only the beginning. Now, and in a new chapter of that work, the same team of scientists (and with the same “camera” that captured the historical image) has achieved take the closest “peek” ever of the violent stream of energy emitted by a supermassive black hole. The results of the research, in which 351 scientists from different institutions around the world have participated, have just been published in “Astronomy & Astrophisics”.

The “monster” is in the heart of a distant and brilliant quasar, called 3C 279 and that is 5 billion light years from Tiera. Quasars, highly active galaxies with huge black holes at their centers that emit large amounts of radiation as they devour materials from the surrounding gas and dust ring, are among the brightest objects in the entire Universe. Since April 2017, 3C 279 was, in effect, one of the four secondary targets of the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) team that captured the image of the galaxy M87 black hole. And now you can finally see the results of this phase of the work.

Relativistic jets

We already know that when matter rushes into a black hole on a one-way trip, a small part of that matter, mainly dust and gas, accelerates to almost the speed of light. As a consequence, the black hole expels “relativistic jets” of particles, traveling at enormous speeds, the fastest in the known Universe. And it is precisely one of those jets that the EHT team has now resolved with an unprecedented level of detail, tracking the “jet” to the black hole accretion disk in the center of the quasar 3C 279. In our eyes, the image may appear somewhat blurry, but its data contains an enormous amount of information.

Crushed matter in the black hole

Analyzing those data, the researchers first came across a small surprise: Although the jet was supposed to travel in a straight line, it actually presents what appears to be a curve at its base, next to an elongated structure which is perpendicular to the direction of the jet itself. “This morphology,” the scientists write in their article, “can be interpreted as a broad base of the jet or as a folded jet.”

Due to the fact that observations of the black hole were made over several days, the researchers were also able to distinguish subtle changes that appear to be proof of something that had already been predicted by theories but had never been directly observed: the rotation of the accretion disk and the crushing process of the matter that falls into the black hole.

Quasar 3C 279 was not chosen by chance. It is, in effect, one of the brightest gamma ray sources ever observed. And hopefully, scientists say, it could also be a “blazar” (a quasar pointing towards Earth), which means that its powerful jet is directed at us, making it easier to observe.

During four nights in April 2017, the team pointed the EHT towards 3C 279, and collected data from 8 stations located at six different geographic locations. These data were then carefully transported to supercomputers at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Germany and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States for comprehensive analysis.

It comes towards us at almost the speed of light

In this way, what appeared to be a single nucleus resolved into two independent objects, which are in motion, even on scales as small as light months. “The jet of 3C 279 is directed at us at more than 99.5% of the speed of light!” Write the excited researchers.

Is about extraordinary findings for studying black holes, which for decades have relied on computer simulations and very low resolution observations. There are still many things to know about the operation of these dark colossi, such as what exactly fuels those huge jets of particles that we can see. And the new image will be an ideal starting point for it.

That is, while the world was reveling in the image of M87’s central black hole, astronomers were already working on the next step. Regrettably, the next round of EHT observations, scheduled for the months of March and April of this year, was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, the researchers still have a lot of data to investigate from the previous campaign of 2017 and 2018. In other words, there is more. This, as scientists said last year, in presenting the M87 black hole image, is just the beginning.

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