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:
X-ray image of the supermassive black hole at the center of Pictor A
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.
Image via NASA/CXC/Univ of Hertfordshire/M.Hardcastle et al., CSIRO/ATNF/ATCA