Scientists captured the first-ever picture of a supermassive black hole in the middle of a feeding frenzy — and it’s a little twisted

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Scientists captured the first-ever picture of a supermassive black hole in the middle of a feeding frenzy — and it’s a little twisted
Illustration of multiwavelength 3C 279 jet structure in April 2017J.Y. Kim (MPIfR), Boston University Blazar Program (VLBA and GMVA), and Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration



  • The Event Horizon Telescope shared the first-ever picture of a supermassive black hole’s plasma jet and it’s not a straight stream.
  • The black hole in question is a part of Quasar 3C 279, which is 5 billion lightyears from Earth and a billion times more massive than the Sun.
  • This is the highest resolution photograph of the phenomena to date.
The Event Horizon Telescope’s ( EHT) claim to fame is the first-ever picture of a black hole, which it shared in 2019. This year, it has released another photograph — this time of a supermassive black hole powered jet.

Scientists captured the first-ever picture of a supermassive black hole in the middle of a feeding frenzy — and it’s a little twisted
Illustration of multiwavelength 3C 279 jet structure in April 2017. The observing epochs, arrays, and wavelengths are noted at each panel.J.Y. Kim (MPIfR), Boston University Blazar Program (VLBA and GMVA), and Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration

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5 billion lights years away, and a billion times bigger
The black hole in question is a part of Quasar 3C 279. It’s nearly 5 billion lightyears away from Earth in the constellation of Virgo. It’s a billion times more massive than the Sun — ripping any gas or stars that come its way to shreds.

It’s called a quasar because it’s actively sucking in material, creating a very bright centre that can be observed all the way from Earth.

As it eats, it’s throwing stuff out as well — kind of like how if a person eats too fast, they tend to burp or fart. Except when a blackhole exudes that behaviour, the material that’s getting thrown out is shot out at a velocity close to the speed of light.

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Even though these jets of plasma are being thrown out in both directions, only one of them points towards Earth. The jets are normally straight. However, this particular black hole’s jet has an unexpected twisted shape at its base.

The perpendicular features could be interpreted as the poles of the black hole’s accretion disk, according to the study.

Highest resolution photograph of a plasma jet
According to the paper published in Astronomy and Astrophysics, this is the highest resolution of a plasma jet caught on camera so far. The close-up shows exactly what happens as the black hole continues to munch on material that crosses its path.

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What’s unusual is that rather than being a straight stream of material being ejected from the supermassive black hole, there’s an unexpected twisted shape at the base of the jet. In the image, you can see a blob of materials that are slightly off the axis as compared to the rest of the jet.

“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," said Jae-Young Kim from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (MPIfR) in Bonn and lead author of the discovery.

What makes it more interesting it that not every black hole has big jets. Even the black hole at the center of Milky Way is relatively mundane in that respect. The photograph of a supermassive black hole feasting could help scientists figure out why the disparity exists.

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Creating an Earth-sized telescope
To capture that phenomenon, the EHT used a technique dubbed the very long baseline interferometry (VLBI). This links its entire network of radio dishes into one huge Earth-sized telescope. It’s so powerful that it would be able to take a close-up of an orange, if one were placed on the Moon.

Scientists captured the first-ever picture of a supermassive black hole in the middle of a feeding frenzy — and it’s a little twisted
The 12-m Radio Telescope APEX at the Chajnantor plateau in Chile, which participated in the observations of 3C 279. In the picture, the holography team is adjusting the antenna surface in order to increase the surface accuracy of the dish.Carlos A. Durán, European Southern Observatory.

The collective trove of information captured by the EHT is then beamed back to the supercomputers at MPIfR and MIT’s Haystack Observatory to be compiled into one cohesive image.

This year, the EHT had to cancel their annual observation of black holes due to the Coronavirus pandemic. However, the team promised further analysis of the data from 2017, which is exactly where they made this discovery.
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See also:
This year's black hole photography gets called off due to coronavirus concerns

An average neutron star is 1.4 times the mass of the Sun — but it’s no bigger than a city in size

Supermassive black hole at the heart of the Milky Way is beating faster than ever before
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