Black hole jets captured in all their glory
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Posted 25 May 2011 - 07:17 AM
Astonishingly beautiful, this is the most detailed image of particle jets erupting from a super-massive black hole yet captured. It shows a region in the nearby galaxy of Centaurus A that is just under 4.2 light-years across - less than the distance between our sun and the nearest star.
Radio-emitting features as small as 15 light-days can be seen, making this the highest-resolution view of galactic jets ever made.
Lead researcher Cornelia Mueller, from the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany, said: 'These jets arise as in-falling matter approaches the black hole, but we don't yet know the details of how they form and maintain themselves.' The image was taken using radio telescopes located throughout the southern hemisphere.
Centaurus A contains a super-massive black hole weighing 55million times the sun's mass. Also known as NGC 5128, it is located about 12million light-years away in the constellation Centaurus and is one of the first celestial radio sources identified with a galaxy. Seen in radio waves, Centaurus A is one of the biggest and brightest objects in the sky, nearly 20 times the apparent size of a full moon.
This is because the visible galaxy lies nestled between a pair of giant radio-emitting lobes, each nearly a million light-years long. These lobes are filled with matter streaming from particle jets near the galaxy's central black hole. Astronomers estimate that matter near the base of these jets races outwards at about a third the speed of light.
Using an intercontinental array of nine radio telescopes, researchers for the Tanami project - Tracking Active Galactic Nuclei with Austral Milliarcsecond Interferometry - were able to effectively zoom into the galaxy's innermost realm. Roopesh Ojha, from Nasa's Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland, said: 'Advanced computer techniques allow us to combine data from the individual telescopes to yield images with the sharpness of a single giant telescope, one nearly as large as Earth itself.
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