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Hubble Captures a Collision in a Black Hole’s “Death Star” Beam

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Posted May 30, 2015

Even the Empire’s planet-blasting battle station has nothing compared to the immense energy being fired from the heart of NGC 3862, a supermassive black hole-harboring elliptical galaxy located 300 million light-years away.

Activity within a jet from NGC 3862 observed with Hubble over 20 years. Credit: NASA, ESA, and E. Meyer (STScI).

Activity within a jet from NGC 3862 observed with Hubble over 20 years. Credit: NASA, ESA, and E. Meyer (STScI).

And while jets of high-energy plasma coming from active galactic nuclei have been imaged before, for the first time activity within a jet has been observed in optical wavelengths, revealing a quite “forceful” collision of ejected material at near light speeds.

Using archived image data acquired by Hubble in 1994, 1996, and 2002 combined with new high-resolution images acquired in 2014, Eileen Meyer at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland identified movement in visible clumps of plasma within the jet emitted from the nucleus of NGC 3862 (aka 3C 264). One of the outwardly-moving larger clumps could be seen gaining on a slower, smaller one in front of it and the two eventually collide, creating a shockwave that brightens the resulting merged mass dramatically.

Such a collision has never been witnessed before, and certainly not thousands of light-years out from the central supermassive black hole.

“Something like this has never been seen before in an extragalactic jet,” Meyer said. “This will allow us a very rare opportunity to see how the kinetic energy of the collision is dissipated into radiation.”

Close-up image of the jet as seen in 2014. Credit: NASA, ESA, and E. Meyer (STScI).

Close-up image of the jet as seen in 2014. Credit: NASA, ESA, and E. Meyer (STScI).

Jets like this are created when infalling material around an active (that is, “feeding”) supermassive black hole gets caught up in its powerful spinning and twisting magnetic fields. This accelerates the material even further and, rather than permitting it to descend down past the black hole’s event horizon, results in it getting shot out into space at velocities close to the speed of light.

When material approaches the black hole in even amounts the jets are fairly consistent. But if the inflow is uneven, the jets can consist of clumps or knots traveling outward at different speeds.

Because of the motion of the galaxy itself related to our own, the speed of the clumps can appear to actually move faster than the speed of light, especially when – as seen in NGC 3862 – a large clump has already paved the way within the jet. In reality the light speed limit has not been broken, but the apparent superluminal motion so far from the SMBH indicates that the material was ejected extremely energetically.

It’s expected that the combined clusters of material will continue to brighten over the next several decades.

You can see a video of the observations below, and watch a Google+ Hangout with Hubble team members about these observations here.

Source: Hubble news center via Universe Today, written by Jason Major

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