A new space observatory helps solve the mystery of supermassive black holes

Written by Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Most galaxies are built around giant black holes. While many of these objects are relatively docile, like the one at the center of our Milky Way galaxy, some are ferocious — consuming large amounts of surrounding material and unleashing huge, bright jets of high-energy particles far into space.

Using data from the recently published Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) orbiting observatory, researchers on Wednesday provided an explanation for how these jets are made so luminous: Subatomic particles called electrons become energized by shock waves moving at supersonic speeds away from the hole. the black. .

Researchers studied a strange object called Blazar at the center of a large elliptical galaxy called Markarian 501 located about 460 million light-years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Hercules. A light year is the distance light travels in a year, 5.9 trillion miles (9.5 trillion km).

Blazars are a subset of objects called quasars that are powered by supermassive black holes feeding on gas and other material at the center of galaxies and sending two streams of particles in opposite directions out into space. The Blazars are directed so that one of their two jets from our vantage point on Earth is heading straight for us.

“Blazars are the most consistently bright objects in the visible universe. They are the most active. They have the largest and most terrifying black holes. Everything that happens around them is absolutely fantastic,” said astronomer Yannis Liodakis of the Finnish Center for Astronomy with ESO. , lead author of the research published in the journal Nature.

Scientists have long sought to understand how the jets from fires become so luminous and the behavior of the particles in them. The jets from this blazar extend a distance of about a million light-years.

Launched last December as a collaboration between NASA and the Italian space agency, IXPE measures the brightness and polarization — a property of light that involves the orientation of electromagnetic waves — of X-ray light from cosmic sources. Various phenomena, such as shock waves or turbulence, provide polarizing “signals”.

The researchers found evidence that particles in the aircraft become energized when they hit a shock wave that propagates outward into the stream and emits X-rays as it accelerates. A shock wave results when something moves faster than the speed of sound through a medium such as air – as a supersonic jet does as it flies through Earth’s atmosphere – or an area of ​​particles and magnetic fields called plasma, as in this case.

“The light we see from aircraft comes from electrons,” said Boston University astrophysicist and study co-author Alan Marcher. “X-rays of the kind we observe in Markarian 501 can only come from very high-energy electrons.”

The driving force behind this drama is the 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 is about a billion times the mass of our Sun. This is about 200 times more massive than Sagittarius A*, the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole.

“Black holes are unique laboratories for studying fundamental physics in extreme conditions that we cannot replicate on Earth,” Lioudakis said.

“However, before we can use them in this way, we need to understand all the physical processes that take place. For many years, we have been observing high-energy light from those sources and have some theories about how the particles that emit that light are so energetic. It has made it possible to Our X-ray polarization capabilities at IXPE for the first time directly test our theories,” Lioudakis said.

(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

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