News from Space: NASA’s new space observatory solves mysteries surrounding blazars – the jets that erupt from giant black holes

Most galaxies are built around giant black holes.

While many of them are comparatively docile, like that at the center of our Milky Way, some are fierce – devouring surrounding material and unleashing huge and blindingly bright jets of high-energy particles far into space.

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Using data from the recently deployed orbiting Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) observatory, researchers this week offered an explanation for how these jets become so bright: Subatomic particles called electrons are excited by shock waves that collide with Moving away from the black hole at supersonic speeds.

Researchers studied an exotic object called Blazar at the center of a large elliptical galaxy called Markarian 501, located about 460 million light-years from Earth toward the constellation of Hercules. A light year is the distance that light travels in one year, 9.5 trillion kilometers.

An artist’s concept of a tidal disturbance event that occurs when a star passes fatally close to a supermassive black hole, which responds by launching a relativistic jet. Recognition: NASA

Blazars are a subset of objects called quasars, powered by supermassive black holes that feed on gas and other material at the centers of galaxies and send two jets of particles into space in opposite directions.

Blazars are oriented so that one of their two jets is heading straight for us from our vantage point on Earth.

“Blazars are the most consistently bright objects in the observable universe. You are the most energetic. They have the biggest and scariest black holes. Everything that happens around them is so fascinating,” said astronomer Yannis Liodakis from the Finnish Center for Astronomy at ESO, lead author of the study published in the journal Nature.

Scientists have long tried to understand how the jets fired by blazars become so bright and how the particles they contain behave.

The jets from this blazar stretch out to a distance of about a million light-years.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on December 9, 2021 carrying NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) spacecraft. Recognition: John Raux/AP

Launched last December in a collaboration between the US space agency NASA and the Italian space agency, IXPE measures the brightness and polarization – a light property that affects the alignment of electromagnetic waves – of X-ray light from cosmic sources.

Various phenomena, such as shock waves or turbulence, show polarization “signatures”.

The researchers found evidence that particles in the jet become energized when struck by a shock wave propagating outwards within the stream and emit X-rays as they accelerate.

A shock wave is produced when something travels faster than the speed of sound through a medium like air — like a supersonic jet traveling through Earth’s atmosphere — or a region of particles and magnetic fields called a plasma, as in this case.

“The light we see from the jets comes from electrons,” said astrophysicist and study co-author Alan Marscher of Boston University.

“X-rays like the ones we see in Markarian 501 can only come from extremely energetic electrons.”

The driving force behind this drama is a black hole, an extraordinarily dense object with gravity so strong that not even light can escape.

The supermassive black hole at the center of Markarian 501 has a mass about a billion times that of our Sun. That’s about 200 times the mass of Sagittarius A*, the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole.

“Black holes are unique laboratories to study fundamental physics under extreme conditions that we can’t replicate on Earth,” said Liodakis.

“However, before we can use them as such, we have to understand all the physical processes that take place.

“For many years we observed high-energy light from these sources and had some theories as to how the particles emitting that light were powered.

“IXPE’s X-ray polarization capabilities have allowed us, for the first time, to directly test our theories.”

The astrophysicist Dr. Brad Tucker describes how a black hole ripped apart a star in a process known as “spaghettification.”

The astrophysicist Dr. Brad Tucker describes how a black hole ripped apart a star in a process known as “spaghettification.” News from Space: NASA’s new space observatory solves mysteries surrounding blazars – the jets that erupt from giant black holes

James Brien

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