First-of-Its-Kind Image Captures a Black Hole’s Shooting Jet

The finding could help reveal how black holes launch such high-energy ejections

three lines of purple blobs emanate from a glowing orange circle with a dark center
The first image to show the shadow of black hole M87 as well as its jet R.-S. Lu (SHAO), E. Ros (MPIfR), S. Dagnello (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

In a stunning new image, astronomers have captured a black hole at the center of a distant galaxy expelling a high-energy jet of matter out into the cosmos.

The jet is longer than the galaxy that contains it, stretching for 5,000 light-years. Scientists have known that black holes emanate jets, but this image is the first to show the jet’s base connecting to the black hole’s accretion disk, or the collection of matter that releases radiation as it’s sucked inside the void.

“This is an amazing result,” Sasha Tchekhovskoy, an astrophysicist who studies black holes at Northwestern University and did not contribute to the research, tells Sky & Telescope’s Camille M. Carlisle.

“Now we can start to address questions such as how matter is captured by a black hole, and how it sometimes manages to escape,” Kazunori Akiyama, a co-author of the study and an astrophysicist at MIT, says in a statement.

Black holes, which have a tremendously strong gravitational pull, suck in anything in their vicinity, including light. But they can also shoot out jets of matter at nearly light speed, though scientists don’t know why this happens, according to the Guardian’s Hannah Devlin.

The researchers hope the findings, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, can help answer this and other questions about these dark abysses in space. The new image “helps to better understand the complicated physics around black holes, how jets are launched and accelerated and how matter inflow into the black hole and matter outflow are related,” Thomas Krichbaum, a co-author of the study and an astrophysicist at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Germany, tells Reuters Will Dunham.

The pictured black hole lies at the center of a galaxy called Messier 87, located 54 million light years from Earth in the constellation Virgo. And it’s no stranger to the lens—the famous first image of a supermassive black hole, taken in 2017, shows the same distant behemoth.

To create the new image, researchers used radio observations from 16 telescopes around the world, acting in tandem as an Earth-sized observatory. Astronomers captured the 2017 image in a similar way, but those telescopes detected light with a wavelength of 1.3 millimeters, resulting in a close-up look at the ring of material just outside the black hole. The new view of the object used light with a longer wavelength of 3.5 millimeters, which revealed more plasma in the ring—its diameter is around 50 percent larger in the new image than in the original.

Observing in longer wavelengths also allowed the telescopes to capture a more zoomed-out view, containing both the ring and the jet. As a result, the image could help researchers better understand why this material is being spewed into space.

“To study this directly, we need to observe the origin of the jet as close as possible to the black hole,” Ru-Sen Lu, lead author of the study and researcher at the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory, tells the Guardian.

Alan Marscher, a co-author and astrophysicist at Boston University, theorizes to Inverse’s Doris Elín Urrutia that a magnetic field created by the material swirling around the black hole could be driving the jets.

But how exactly the jets are formed in the first place is “a big question, and that’s what we’re trying to answer,” he tells the publication.

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