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A supermassive black hole is shooting X-rays across galaxies

Luckily, it's 500 million light years away.
A supermassive black hole is shooting X-rays across galaxies
Steve Dent
Steve Dent|@stevetdent|February 3, 2016 11:38 AM

NASA doesn't often compare things to a Death Star, but a phenomenon observed by its Chandra X-ray Observatory apparently qualifies. The composite image above shows a supermassive black hole that is continuously stripping material from nearby stars and other objects with its enormous gravity. When the material hits the "event horizon," a massive gravitational blast produces a particle jet that spans nearly 300,000 light years, three times the width of the entire Milky Way galaxy. That amount of power is pretty alarming, but luckily it's around 500 million light years away from us in the Pictor A galaxy.

To produce the image, scientists used X-ray wavelength photos taken by Chandra over a period of 15 years (the blue parts). Those were married with radio images from the Australia Telescope Compact Array (in red) that show "radio lobes" from the galaxy that are penetrated by the jet. The bright spot at the right is a shock wave created by an X-ray jet that's the light equivalent to a supersonic sound blast. There's also a counterjet dimly visible to the left of the black hole that scientists had long suspected, but never seen until now.


The astronomers are at once fascinated and puzzled by the jets. The X-rays likely arise from "synchotron emissions," a (really well-named) process where electrons are continuously accelerated by a magnetic field as they move along the jet. However, nobody's sure exactly how that process works. Scientists once thought that particles were accelerated into the X-ray band by cosmic background radiation, but they ruled that out that theory because the jets aren't bright enough. Suffice to say, you wouldn't want to be living in this galaxy, though it's fun to enjoy the insanity from a (great) distance.

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A supermassive black hole is shooting X-rays across galaxies