Science & Health

There's Something Very Ominous Going On Near This Supermassive Black Hole

There's Something Very Ominous Going On Near This Supermassive Black Hole

What’s this, you ask? Oh, it’s nothing. Just a supermassive black hole blasting a giant x-ray beam over a 300,000 light year-wide gulf of intergalactic space.

That’s right: you’re looking at a composite image of a tremendous cosmic blast, pieced together from 15 years of observational data collected by NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory and the Australia Telescope Compact Array. In it, an X-ray beam (blue) jettisons away from the black hole sitting toward the centre of Pictor A, a galaxy located 500 million light years from Earth. Other prominent features include a “radio lobe” (red), where the X-ray beam is pushing into the surrounding interstellar gas, and a bright “hotspot” at the leading edge of the jet, caused by supersonic shock waves.

Here are the X-ray and radio images, separately:

There's Something Very Ominous Going On Near This Supermassive Black Hole

X-ray image of the supermassive black hole at the center of Pictor A

There's Something Very Ominous Going On Near This Supermassive Black Hole

Radio image of the supermassive black hole at the centre of Pictor A

Now, this situation may strike you as somewhat alarming. But NASA assures us that intergalactic laser blasts are a perfectly normal — in fact, expected — outcome of living in a universe filled with massive invisible objects that ruthlessly devour light and matter.

When cosmic material swirls toward the event horizon of a black hole, it releases a huge amount of gravitational energy. Every so often, some of this energy is re-emitted in a jet of particles that whiz off into intergalactic space at close the speed of light. Our own friendly neighbourhood black hole, Sagittarius A*, has had similar outbursts over the ages, including one six million years ago that could have impacted life on Earth.

Yep — just a normal, healthy outburst from a massive celestial object that devours stars in a galaxy far far away.

[Chandra]

Image via NASA/CXC/Univ of Hertfordshire/M.Hardcastle et al., CSIRO/ATNF/ATCA


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