Scientists visualize a black hole plasma jet in unprecedented detail

The jets are pointed toward Earth, providing a better viewing angle than normal.
Marc DeAngelis
M. DeAngelis|04.07.20

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Supermassive black hole blazar
J.Y. Kim, et al. / Boston University Blazar Program

At the center of most galaxies is a supermassive black hole. While many aspects of these objects remain mysterious, it’s clear that they gobble up immense amounts of energy and matter. This forms an accretion disc of plasma, but sometimes that plasma also shoots out from the magnetic poles of the black hole at nearly the speed of light. With the help of the Event Horizon Telescope, scientists have imaged one of those plasma jets in a level of detail that should lend itself to deeper insight into how they form, how supermassive black holes consume energy and more.

The image shows a bright oval, which astronomers believe to be the black hole’s accretion disc, as well as a darker stream of energy shooting out from it. The fact that the jet is pointed toward Earth gives scientists a better viewing angle of a jet than normal. We’ve seen a similar image captured from the galaxy M87 in the visible light spectrum, but this image captures the phenomenon in infrared, meaning astronomers can better understand how hot the matter around the black hole is.

When a supermassive black hole features such jets, it’s classified as a blazar. Astronomers posit that the magnetic poles of the black hole channel the energy up from the accretion disc and shoot it out with a tremendous amount of energy -- the jet captured in the image is traveling at about 0.995 times the speed of light. Strangely, the jet in question seems to be shooting out from the black hole at an odd angle. This has been confirmed by Dr. Ziri Younsi of University College London, who is a co-author of the paper that featured the image. According to The Guardian, he says that this may indicate a “kink” at the base of the jet, or that energy is somehow winding itself around the jet.

This image will hopefully help astronomers answer some compelling questions, like how matter and energy are transported from the accretion disc to the poles of a black hole, or why our own supermassive black hole -- which is 200 times smaller than the one in the image -- does not shoot out jets of energy.

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